A Travellerspoint blog

Wildlife blog #3: The wild side of Thailand


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Thailand is known more for its wild parties than wild animals, but away from the fleshpots of Bangkok and Phuket the country is blessed with some extraordinary natural treasures. We planned our fortnight in southern Thailand to include some of the area's wildlife hotspots, and we weren't disappointed.

The chain of karst mountains that we had seen earlier in our travels in Vietnam and Laos raise their heads again in southern Thailand. They stretch all the way from Guilin in China to Sarawak in Borneo, and are the eroded remains of an ancient coral sea that was thrust up when the Indian and Eurasian plates collided. The limestone peaks are at their loftiest in Khao Sok National Park, reaching to more than 3000ft, and it was here that we spent New Year.

The park was created in the 1970s to protect the rich tropical forests that cloak the hills, a dense jungle older than the Amazon rainforest. Subsequently, the creation of more National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the surrounding areas mean that Khao Sok is now part of the largest tract of old-growth forest in Southeast Asia. So vast is this protected area that it still holds viable populations of wild elephants, tigers and gaur. I decided this was the place to watch wildlife in Thailand.

It was not cheap. I planned a four-day tailor-made trip with a local tour company. As it was during the busy New Year period, we needed to travel deep into the forest to escape the hordes of partying Thais. The invoice ended in lots of zeros and required three trips to an ATM before we had a sufficiently fat wad of baht to pay for it.

A longtail boat ride through Khao Sok, Thailand's Guilin

A longtail boat ride through Khao Sok, Thailand's Guilin

Our tour started with a longtail boat ride across Chiew Lan Reservoir. This huge lake was created by the construction of the Ratchaprapha Dam in the 1980s. The energy generated by the dam now powers most of southern Thailand, but it remains a controversial project. The lake flooded the lowland forests to a depth of 90m, resulting in devastating loss and fragmentation of forest habitat. Now, the remnants of once-mighty trees still break the lake's surface and the wildlife of the park is continuing to be affected by the changes.

The remnants of the flooded forest

The remnants of the flooded forest

On a map, Chiew Lan looks like one of the fractal patterns you find in a maths textbook, each branch of the lake dividing into sub-branches and then sub-sub-branches, many of which remain untouched by human hand. One benefit of the lake's creation was to allow easier access to far reaches of the jungle. In turn, some local fishing families have turned their hands to ecotourism, building floating rafthouses to accommodate visitors. These allowed us to stay three nights on the lake and explore the Khlong Seang Wildlife Sanctuary, less visited than Khao Sok. Our guide was Kiem, a real character who could spot a monkey a mile off and tell you all about it in his unique brand of self-taught, "Me Tarzan, you Jane" English.

The Khlong Seang raft houses at sunset

The Khlong Seang raft houses at sunset

"Looking, looking! Monkey! Me not sure which. Him on ground near water. Now climbing. Climbing on bamboo. You see? Left from big-leaf tree. Now more! Sitting, watching on big branch. Him look at me. Now climbing, now jumping! Him jump in tree behind. Next one coming and jumping also. Now one left. You see him now? Also jumping, jumping! Now gone behind. Me no see him now."

Long-tailed macaque on the beach

Long-tailed macaque on the beach

Kiem was a star. On our daily boat safaris, morning and evening, we saw so much wildlife that Kiem’s monologues were played out again and again as he went into a spotting frenzy. But the forest was dense and primeval, and picking out the animals was not easy. Monkeys were amongst the most conspicuous. Both long-tailed macaques and dusky langurs came to the water’s edge to feed on fresh bamboo shoots. They are easy to tell apart – the langurs look as though they have fallen for the old comic-book joke of using binoculars with wet paint on the eyepieces, thanks to the white rings around their eyes. They also have endearing orange babies. I’m surprised a certain mobile phone company hasn’t cottoned on to them yet.

Hornbills are here too, and we saw four different kinds. The most majestic are the great hornbills. We watched one feeding on a fig tree, tossing the fruit into his huge beak and flapping from branch to branch. When they launch their heavy bodies into the air, their wing beats make a characteristic whooshing sound like a gaucho whirling a lasso round his head.

Great hornbill in a fruiting fig tree

Great hornbill in a fruiting fig tree

By far the most evocative noise in the forest is the haunting cry of gibbons, which carries for miles over the canopy each morning. Gibbons live in family groups and are monogamous; their calls are part of a daily ritual of singing and swinging to reinforce the pair bond. On our third morning we finally saw wild gibbons with our own eyes, doing what gibbons do best: hanging around, swinging and walking upright along branches, Man on Wire style.

The gibbons were a personal highlight, but our first night safari ran them a close second. The technique is to search the forest from the boat with a powerful spotlight, looking for eyeshine. Then the engine is cut and the light used to try to keep the animal frozen until the boat is close enough for us to see what it is. The biggest prize was a small wildcat (probably a leopard cat, though even Kiem was not certain). We also got a surprise when the boat drew up to the bank so Kiem could catch us a frog, only for him to discover a python climbing out of the water. Seconds later he spotted second python right behind it, and this one was a monster. Kiem leapt backwards and grabbed a paddle, leaving me in the line of attack and without a weapon. The python turned and started swimming towards us. We could see the whole of its body just under the surface, and I do not exaggerate when I say it was about 5m long. Fortunately it lost interest in us; I think python lovemaking was top of its agenda that night. I don't know how pythons do it but I presume there's quite a lot of squeezing involved.

Jungle Jen demostrates how to use binoculars

Jungle Jen demostrates how to use binoculars


And that's why they call him Parsons of the Apes

And that's why they call him Parsons of the Apes

Another of Thailand's natural wonders are its coral reefs, particularly those on the Andaman coast. The reefs are another ancient ecosystem, but have taken a battering in recent years due to coral bleaching and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. On the day after the seventh anniversary of that disaster, we left the harbour at Khao Lak on a boat bound for the Similan Islands for three days of snorkelling.

The female Parsonsfish approaches her quarry

The female Parsonsfish approaches her quarry

The reefs are now in a pretty bad state, and it will take decades for them to recover (assuming global warming doesn't kill them off completely), but other marine life around the islands is still abundant. Jumping off our boat at each site was like entering a giant aquarium. There is so much life here that it can be difficult to take it all in. Your eyes have to constantly roam the water ahead and to each side, as well as scanning the reef below.

Green turtle in the Similan Islands National Park

Green turtle in the Similan Islands National Park

We had the pleasure of swimming with sea turtles three days in a row, an experience that would have been worth the price of the trip alone. But we saw much else besides! Cuttlefish, squid, stingrays, sea snakes, giant morays, tuna, giant grouper and a whole smorgasbord of reef fish. The icing on the cake for me was seeing a blacktip reef shark. I was snorkelling so far from the boat that nobody else was with me, so I made sure to get a photo as proof. It’s probably the worst photo of a shark you’ll ever see, but I have to confess I wasn’t totally in control of my senses when I took it!

My shark photo - taken under stressful circumstances

My shark photo - taken under stressful circumstances


Pacific lionfish at Koh Lipe

Pacific lionfish at Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged wildlife thailand Comments (8)

How not to haggle


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We British are notoriously reticent when it comes to haggling, but in Southeast Asia's tourist markets it’s a skill you live and die by. And judging by my first clumsy attempt at Siem Reap's Night Market, my skills definitely needed honing.

Getting in to the Night Market is all part of the fun, as you have to run the gauntlet of fish massage stalls which line the street leading to the entrance. Ladies rush at you from both sides waving laminated price lists and shouting "Sir, sir, fish massaaaaa!" The first time this happened I was far too polite. "No thanks," I said to one hopeful woman, "I can get this in England." Her reply was instant. "My fish give better massaaaaa!"

Once inside you immediately lose your bearings in the labyrinth of covered alleys and hundreds of stalls all selling variations on the same theme. Most of the stuff was not worth a second glance, but then I spotted a stall selling t-shirts of a single design; a motif of the monkey god Hanuman in full battle dress. I can't explain why I liked it, but as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have one. I enquired about the price. "Five dollar," said the lady running the stall (US currency is king in Cambodia). Yes, it was cheap, but other stalls were asking US$2 (for admittedly inferior t-shirts) and knowing I should haggle, I offered her three. "No!" came the quick reply. "I give you four dollar, best price." Not satisfied with a 20% discount, I walked away, expecting her to call me back and agree to my offer. But she didn't. I couldn't look over my shoulder as that would betray my tactics, so I walked straight back out of the market - a humiliating failure by anyone's standards.

The next night I went back and braved the fish massage sellers again, this time with four dollars in my pocket.

Slightly embarrassed by my efforts in Cambodia, I resolved to do better at Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar, a massive enterprise which seems to occupy an entire district of the city. It made Siem Reap look like a garage sale.

Ten minutes in, and things were going well. I already had a pair of 'Oakley' sunglasses in my pocket for 100 baht (£2) and was hunting for the next bargain. Jen paused momentarily at a stall selling bamboo place mats and coasters. The stallholder sensed another gullible victim to prey on; I sensed an opportunity for some ruthless negotiation. His opening gambit for a set of six mats and coasters was 900 baht. ("Special price tonight sir!") I laughed at his gall, and decided to get him down to 400. The bartering was a tactical game and we were both putting in spirited performances. My adversary brandished a large calculator on which he theatrically bashed out lower and lower prices, each one accompanied by a well-rehearsed patter: "Look sir, this price for you only, don’t tell nobody, our secret!" On this occasion my walking away trick worked – three times. After 10 minutes his calculator display read 4-0-0, and victory was mine. I reached for my wallet triumphantly. Jen immediately took the wind out of my sails by announcing that she wasn't sure if she liked them enough, and anyway, how were we to carry them home? To the stallholder's bafflement, I had to walk away empty-handed, shrugging my shoulders apologetically.

The following night we went to the Sunday Walking Street, a road through the old city which transforms into a tourist market one evening every week (on a Sunday, funnily enough). We found a stall selling bamboo mats and coasters identical to those I had haggled over the night before. They even had sets of six, prominently displayed in the middle of the stall. I glanced at the hand-written sign propped against the sets, then glanced again just to make sure I had read it correctly. Disappointingly, I had. "Special offer – 400 baht."

Luang Prabang's night market

Luang Prabang's night market

Sunday Walking Street in old Chiang Mai

Sunday Walking Street in old Chiang Mai


The lantern sellers always draw a crowd

The lantern sellers always draw a crowd


Glass engraver with a hot-headed bear

Glass engraver with a hot-headed bear


Chiang Mai doesn't have a branch of Accessorize, but it does have this

Chiang Mai doesn't have a branch of Accessorize, but it does have this


A refreshing drink after a hard night's haggling

A refreshing drink after a hard night's haggling

Posted by Chris Parsons 03:10 Archived in Thailand Tagged markets shopping cambodia thailand chiangmai Comments (1)

Food blog #4: Cooking doesn't get tougher than this


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What do you get if you cross Masterchef with Ray Mears? You might be thinking of a strange TV survival challenge in which the contestants have to keep John Torode and Greg Wallace alive in the jungle by feeding them Michelin-star bush meat, berries and roots. In our case, the answer was the ever-cheerful Kiem, our guide in the tropical jungle of Thailand's Khao Sok National Park. On the second day of our tour, he gave us a masterclass in jungle cuisine. We had journeyed by boat to a tributary of the Cheow Lan Reservoir, and then on foot upstream. This involved a fair amount of bush-whacking, stream-crossing and leech-dodging. By the time Kiem announced that we had reached our lunch spot, our clothes were sticking to us, and on our exposed skin the leeches were doing the same.

Kiem finds his rice steamer

Kiem finds his rice steamer

First task: collect your bamboo. You don't have to go far, for it grows everywhere in the jungle. The bamboo is not for eating, it's much too valuable for that. Its first use is as fuel for the fire, which is Bin's responsibility (Bin is our boat boy and Kiem's sous-chef). Whereas Mears would waste hours rubbing sticks together and blowing into kindling, there's none of that malarkey here. Kiem and Bin are both smokers, and the fire is soon burning merrily.

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Next: get the rice on. It's washed, parcel-wrapped inside large leaves and stuffed inside a length of green bamboo with a little water. The top is sealed and it's placed upright on the fire. Hey presto, one rice steamer!

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Time to crack on with the first of our three dishes today: barbecued chicken. Kiem fumbles deep in his rucksack and, in a flourish, produces a bag of chicken portions that have been marinated in spices overnight. Now all we need is a skewer to hang the meat on over the fire. Kiem reaches for the bamboo again. A thin cane is split lengthways over most of its length and the split ends are tied together with bamboo twine to hold the chicken pieces securely.

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Now, it's time to prepare the serving dishes and plates (the only crocks in this jungle have big eyes and big teeth). For this we turn to - yes, you've guessed it - bamboo again. Sections of green bamboo are cut above and below adjacent joints, then split in half lengthways. This takes advantage of the fact that a thin membrane of fibres grows across the stem at each joint, so the chopped up pieces form hollow half cylinders – perfect for dividing up the grub.

Raw material for the plates and dishes

Raw material for the plates and dishes


Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Dishes two and three are a sweet and sour pork curry and stir-fried vegetables. Unfortunately nobody has yet learned how to make a bamboo wok, so Kiem has to cheat. When each dish is ready, it's transferred to the serving plates. The only remaining task is for us to get to the grub before the wee jungle beasties do! Every dish is a winner, but the prize goes to the barbecued chicken, which was finger lickin' good.

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork


Succulent chicken straight from the fire

Succulent chicken straight from the fire


Jungle lunch is served

Jungle lunch is served

But we're not done yet. There's fresh fruit for afters: the remainder of the pineapple used for the sweet and sour curry (eaten with bamboo cocktail sticks) and rambutans, fruit that looks like it was brought to earth from Mars.

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

All this gluttony was thirsty work, and for a quenching drink, Kiem returned us to the bamboo. Within each jointed section is a small quantity of water – the older the bamboo stem, the sweeter and fresher the water tastes. To get at this precious liquid, Kiem cuts a hole a few inches above a joint, and we suck it out through a straw (made from bamboo, naturally).

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

So as you can see, the humble bamboo is worth its weight in gold. Next time you forget your pressure cooker or your fine bone china when you go into the jungle, you'll know just what to do.

Before we headed back to the boat, Kiem showed us his party piece: the bamboo gun. He placed a long stem horizontally on top of the fire and told us to wait. The fire heats the water in the bamboo immediately over the flames, causing it to boil and pressurize the sealed section. Eventually the pressure rises so much that it explodes with a loud BANG, causing every animal within half a mile to flee. Hang on though, aren't we supposed to be wildlife spotting this afternoon? D'oh!

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:06 Archived in Thailand Tagged food jungle cooking curry Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #2: Big trouble in Indochina


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The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?

Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede


The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.

Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.

The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.

Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam


Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged wildlife cambodia vietnam laos indochina Comments (0)

Where did the time go?


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We're home! We must have been having too much fun, because our four months in Asia have flown by. Touching down in Manchester this morning after three back-to-back flights, we fully expected to find the usual crap January weather, but no, a beautiful dawn on a clear winter's day welcomed us. The only shock was the temperature: 32 Celsius when we boarded the plane in Malaysia, 32 Fahrenheit in the north of England.

At 11:30 the man from Tesco arrived with our shopping, ordered on the other side of the world a few days ago. What kind of travellers are we, I hear you all cry, to be thinking of the contents of our fridge when the sights, sounds and smells of Asia are laid before us? In our defence, the Tesco delivery is the best way of re-stocking your kitchen cupboards when you come back off holiday and your car's overdue for its MOT! It also freed us up after lunch to go for a walk in the local hills, a lovely way to get the circulation going after many hours cramped in airline seats.

Below, I've attached the very last photo from our trip, taken just after checking our bags in at Langkawi airport, and a second photo taken today on the hillside about 20 minutes from our house. For all the exotic and wonderful sights we've seen over the past four months, it's great to be back.

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But we still have a few blog entries before we sign off. Towards the end of the trip, our creative juices were flowing and our pens were dancing across the pages of our notebook, but to be honest, the beach and the sea were more inviting than the Internet cafe! So, thanks for following the blog this far and to all those who left comments, and keep on reading if you want to help us choose our perfect island, hear about the embattled wildlife of Indochina, learn how to make a jungle curry and find out how not to haggle in the local markets.

PS. I experimented with large photos in the previous blog. I've reverted back to the smaller size again, but if you can find any photo we've posted at an enlarged size in our Travellerspoint photo galleries: click here for mine and here for Jen's. Some different photos will also be appearing on Jen's Facebook page very shortly!

Posted by Chris Parsons 12:38 Archived in Malaysia Tagged home langkawi Comments (1)

What's wat


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This blog is inspired by a bar in Siem Reap called Angkor What?

- "Look at that wat!"
- "That what?"
- "No, that wat."
- "Oh, the wat."
- "Yes, and what a wat."
- "Very nice. So, what wat's that wat?"
- "Well, I'll tell you what."
- "What?"
- "I know what's a wat and what's not a wat, but I don't know what wat's what."
- "You what?"

The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang - what you might call high wattage

The Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang - what you might call high wattage


The ornate interior of Wat Xieng Thong

The ornate interior of Wat Xieng Thong


Golden statues on Phoussy Hill in Luang Prabang

Golden statues on Phoussy Hill in Luang Prabang


A dawn ritual - donating breakfast to the monks

A dawn ritual - donating breakfast to the monks


The West Gate of Angkor Wat

The West Gate of Angkor Wat


Wat Doi Suthep's golden chedi is one of the most sacred places in northern Thailand

Wat Doi Suthep's golden chedi is one of the most sacred places in northern Thailand


A monk gives Doi Suthep's holy elephant a fresh lick of paint

A monk gives Doi Suthep's holy elephant a fresh lick of paint


A pile of shoes outside a Chiang Mai wat

A pile of shoes outside a Chiang Mai wat


Scaffolders working on a chedi in Chiang Mai. Note the lack of hard hats and bamboo scaffolding.

Scaffolders working on a chedi in Chiang Mai. Note the lack of hard hats and bamboo scaffolding.

Posted by Chris Parsons 23:42 Archived in Laos Tagged temples cambodia thailand buddhism laos monks wats Comments (2)

Wildlife blog #1: Encounters in the Himalayas


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Happy New Year one and all! As our trip draws to a close, we are furiously cranking out the last few blogs - today you get three for the price of one.

I wrote about zoos in my previous blog, but there's no substitute for seeing an animal in the wild. In the Himalayas, there's always the chance of an animal encounter, and we've had some memorable ones on our previous trips to Nepal and India: seeing griffon vultures at close range as we climbed to a ridge on which they perched, glimpsing musk deer and colourful pheasants in the forests around Namche, tracking a group of tahr (a wild goat) up a steep hillside and finding langur monkeys in the rhododendron forests of the Annapurna Sanctuary. This trip provided many more such moments.

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

There are two species of monkey in the Nepal Himalaya, and both are relatively easy to spot. Rhesus macaques are bold opportunists and they happily live alongside people, even in major cities like Kathmandu and Agra. We saw a large group on the first night of our trek and a lone individual at about 2,500m in the Tsum Valley, which is about as high as they venture. Further up the same valley we came across a troupe of grey langurs sunbathing on the roof of an abandoned stone hut, and they posed obligingly for photographs. The monkeys here have an uneasy coexistence with the local farmers, for they come down from the trees to raid the fields of millet and tsampa (a local cereal crop). In response, the farmers build elevated wooden platforms overlooking the crops and post their children as sentries to watch for marauding monkeys. Any animal that comes within range gets scared off with a well-aimed rock. If ever we heard a high-pitched, disembodied voice crying "Namaste!" it was sure to be one of the local kids on monkey watch.

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Higher still, the pine and juniper forests peter out and one enters a realm of windswept pastures and rock debris. Other mammal species inhabit these high, inaccessible valleys. Marmots are usually heard before they are seen, betraying their whereabouts with a piercing alarm call. They are the same species as can be seen in the European Alps, only they seem fatter here. Mustelids - Himalayan weasels and yellow martens - also patrol these valleys, hunting small rodents like the pika and Himalayan rat. In the UK you have to be very lucky to see a wild weasel, but I've seen their Himalayan cousins on several occasions. We surprised one individual who had just caught a mouse, causing him to drop his dinner and scamper into the bushes. We waited patiently and sure enough he emerged a short while later, scampered back to his kill, grabbed it, stared at us for a few seconds and scarpered.

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

The aforementioned tahr is one of a number of large herbivores which graze the scrub and kharkas. The one most commonly encountered is the blue sheep or bharal. It is not a true sheep, but rather one of those strange-looking hybrid animals that appears to have been designed by a committee. Males grow large curved horns and look most impressive when they engage in combat on the precipitous mountainsides.

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

The blue sheep is curiously named
For its blueness is falsely claimed
If I were a ewe
I'd paint us all blue
To stop us from feeling ashamed

Baby blue sheep and fat marmots are the favourite prey of eagles. Our trekking guides pronounced any large bird of prey in the sky as an eagle, but most are in fact vultures. Griffon vultures are the highest fliers and are commonly seen in small groups, circling on thermal updraughts to great altitudes. Lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, are usually seen in pairs and track up and down valleys below the mountain summits. I watched a solitary lammergeier wheeling and swooping around the outcrop on which the village of Phu is constructed, and as we got closer it buzzed us several times, flying so low that I could make out its eyes and the mane of golden feathers around its nape. A large, solitary raptor is more likely to be an eagle, always flying purposefully. In the Himalayas, we saw a fair number of golden eagles, the species we know from the UK.

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La


Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

You have to be extremely fortunate to catch sight of other large predators in these mountains. They are rare, wary of humans and mostly nocturnal. But my most memorable wildlife moment on the Himalayan leg of our trip involved one such predator, and I didn't even see the animal in question. It was above the treeline in Sikkim, at an altitude of nearly 5,000m, that my guide and I came across fresh tracks in the snow. The lower forests harbour leopards, Asiatic black bears and red pandas, but the extreme altitude ruled out any of these candidates. They were the tracks of a Himalayan wolf, a rare subspecies of the grey wolf restricted to the remote corners of Nepal, northern India, Tibet and Pakistan. As if this were not exciting enough, further along the path we came across yet more tracks, this time a trail of much larger pawprints with a shallow groove running between them: tracks left by a snow leopard. The groove was created by the snow leopard's long tail trailing through the deep snow. An actual sighting of a snow leopard must count as the ultimate animal encounter, because of its inaccessible habitat, its beauty and scarcity and the fact that it almost exclusively hunts at night. In Nepal we trekked through the Annapurna and Manaslu Conservation Areas, both prime snow leopard habitat, but even here there are thought to be no more than five snow leopards per 100km2. To illustrate the difficulty of seeing one, even the experts at the BBC Natural History Unit took a year to locate a snow leopard, and a further year to obtain some decent footage of it, when they decided to film the species for Planet Earth. I would settle happily for a set of fresh tracks!

There is one creature of the Himalayas even more mythical and elusive than the snow leopard. Legends speak of a dark, human-like shape moving swiftly over ridges, huge footprints in the snow and eerie moaning cries in the night. It is of course the yeti. Did I see dark shapes moving swiftly over ridges, or huge footprints in the snow? I did not, more's the pity, though I was once woken with a start in the middle of the night by a strange moaning sound outside the tent. A yeti, perhaps? Chance would be a fine thing - it was only Jen bringing up her dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:04 Archived in Nepal Tagged wildlife india himalayas nepal Comments (0)

Chris goes to the zoo (again)


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

On our travels through Asia, we have come across all manner of animal-themed tourist attractions. Animals as entertainment is big business here and nowhere more so than in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand. In the Mae Sa Valley a short distance from the city of Chiang Mai, you can watch a man French-kissing a king cobra, laugh at monkeys riding bicycles and have a photo taken of your head in the mouth of a live crocodile. As if this weren't enough, a few miles down the road lies Tiger Kingdom, which unashamedly bills itself as the only place in the world where you can enter a cage with a full-grown tiger and stroke its whiskers. It's tempting to shake one's head disapprovingly at the Thais for laying on such dubious forms of entertainment. Though they are guilty of insufficient regulation of this kind of attraction and pandering to the market for cheap thrills at animals' expense, the real culprits here are the paying punters. For instance, the staff at Tiger Kingdom has to keep poking and prodding the tigers to stop them from falling asleep. Their excuse for this shameful practice is that if the tigers were asleep, the tourists would not pay to enter the cage. To which I say: isn't it time to educate your visitors instead?

Closer to Chiang Mai itself are two wildlife attractions of a more traditional nature; a zoo and a night safari. Now I like a good zoo (the emphasis on good), and the UK is blessed with some very good zoos which do great work in conversation and education. For this reason I don't subscribe to the notion that zoos belong in the dustbin of history - they should be given a chance to move with the times and respond to the ever-changing demands of the discerning zoo visitor. I also enjoy visiting other countries' zoos, because I think you can learn something about their society from the way they exhibit and care for captive animals, and from observing the natives on family outings to their local zoo.

In Chiang Mai I passed on the Night Safari (because it had been built inside a National Park) and caught a tuk-tuk to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium, Thailand's largest zoo. It's a very picturesque place, set on a forested hillside with an abundance of tropical flowering plants. It's also vast, so vat that the Thais have built roads between the enclosures, as if to prove the point that there's nowhere in the country that can't be reached on a moped. Modern Thailand again shows its face in the form of innumerable retail outlets in the zoo grounds; even a small supermarket and a shoe shop.

In the zoo's many souvenir kiosks, panda toys are the hot sellers, for Chiang Mai is one of the only zoos in South East Asia to house giant pandas. In 2009, their pair of pandas produced a baby, though not without the help of a small army of veterinary specialists. The male showed no interest in mating with the female by natural means, so artificial insemination was used (twice). I know this because it was all explained in great detail on a wall of information boards in the panda house, with the help of some very graphic photos showing probes being inserted in various panda orifices. The panda enclosure faces this wall, so the poor animals are confronted with poster-size images of their own genitalia all day long. It must be the panda equivalent of waking up after a night on the lash, looking in the mirror and thinking "Oh God, is that really me?"

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

If the panda exhibit was one highlight, another was the huge walk-through aviary, which must have been created by simply stretching a net over an area of mature forest and filling it full of colourful tropical birds. Elsewhere, the exhibits were disappointingly average. Though the reptiles can be exhibited in outdoor enclosures rather than the poky heated buildings we're used to in European zoos, choosing to put all your crocodiles in concrete pits isn't the greatest way to show them off. Furthermore, there were no outstanding exhibits and no local rarities - just the usual crowd-pleasers such as lions, penguins and elephants.

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

The visitors to Far Eastern zoos often betray the different attitude to wild animals between this part of the world and, say, Europe or North America. Here, animals in zoos are firmly for the visitors' entertainment. In Western Europe zoos take great pains to instruct visitors not to feed the animals, but in Chiang Mai it was positively encouraged. You could feed pretty much anything, including the big cats, the latter by means of a piece of raw meat on the end of a pole which you could insert through the wire mesh of their cage. How exactly does this foster respectful stewardship and sensitivity towards wildlife? To be fair to the Thais, they were generally pretty well behaved, especially when I think back to some of the things I saw in Beijing Zoo.

The aquarium in the middle of the zoo has the distinction of having South East Asia's longest underwater tunnels. (It's important for all public aquaria to have a 'deepest', 'longest', 'biggest' or 'world's only' to trumpet.) The more impressive of the two runs through a freshwater tank which is home to some absolute monsters - giant Mekong catfish, freshwater stingrays and pirarucu (the largest fish in the Amazon). The information signs in the aquarium reflected an unusual take on visitor interpretation, offering advice on which species could be kept in home aquaria.

If Chiang Mai tried to impress with its role-call of big-hitting species, the other zoo I visited on this trip was a complete contrast. True, it held tigers, wolves, bears and panthers, but this was still a zoo with a difference. The Himalayan Mountain Zoo in Darjeeling specialises in Himalayan fauna, so you won't find giraffes, meerkats or flamingos here. It's a small establishment but holds the distinction of being the most successful zoo globally at breeding endangered snow leopards and red pandas.

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

I arrived late one afternoon after a brisk walk along the ridge out of town. Fortunately, the zoo occupies a small site and can be explored thoroughly in just an hour or two. The setting, like Chiang Mai's zoo, is delightful: mature forest, one of the few such areas remaining in this part of West Bengal. And unlike the rest of India, the zoo grounds are clean, orderly and quiet. I spent a good half hour watching the red pandas devouring their evening meal of bamboo shoots, and a similar amount of time marvelling at the extensive collection of pheasants (unfortunately kept behind dirty Perspex screens, so I could not photograph their brilliant colours).

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

At the blue sheep enclosure I noticed three Indian boys nearby. Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they approached me (this happens a lot in India). "Where are you from?" one of them asked. "England," I replied, "Manchester." Their eyes suddenly widened, for mention of this city provokes the same response across the whole of Asia. "Manchester United!" they chorused in unison. I then had to explain that few people in Manchester actually support United, and I was not one of them. This they found hard to believe, perhaps because 99% of Man U fans live in Asia and they can't imagine why I would want to follow any other team. They were not visiting the zoo, but were on the way to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which lies within the zoo grounds. They had two weeks off school to learn basic mountaineering schools at this famous training centre established by Tenzing Norgay the year after he summitted Everest on the 1953 British expedition. "You like my country?" asked one of the boys as we parted ways. "I like your zoo!" I replied evasively.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged india thailand zoo panda darjeeling Comments (0)

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