27.12.2011 - 08.01.2012
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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!