Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 1

Cheow Lan Lake, southern Thailand

It seemed like a good idea at the time….

A two-night, three-day birding tour in southern Thailand didn’t seem so crazy. We’d hire a guide, he’d take us to birding areas that we couldn’t reach on our own. A boat. Oh, yes, there’d be a boat, as our targeted area was centred on a large man-made lake where the water was the only way to travel. And floating bungalows. That should be a lark—imagine, sleeping in bamboo huts actually on the lake.

And so, in all innocence, we left behind the comfort of our hotel in Phuket pre-dawn to climb sleepily into Ike’s SUV.

Let me pause for a moment to speak, with fondness and with reverence, of Ike. I can honestly say I have never met a more personable character in my travels. Having struggled for two weeks in Thailand to be understood (my fault, not anyone else’s, as I speak no Thai), I was happily gobsmacked at Ike’s perfect command of English, to the point where I had to stop myself continually (and idiotically) remarking on it. Not only did he express himself better than a good number of my acquaintances back home, but his birding skills far surpassed ours. Often during the weekend, we would be listening to a cacophony of sound arising from the jungle, and he would suddenly cup his ear, point, and announce “great hornbill!” And by gum, if we stilled our ragged breathing and tuned out everything else, we, too, could hear the distant, soft hoot. Then, more times than not, just to prove that he wasn’t just making things up, we’d see the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of a great hornbill sail off across the horizon. Add to his virtues a ready sense of humor and a genuine kindness, and you have a good picture of him.

We were not Ike’s typical bird tour clients. Although you can’t exactly call us novices, as we’ve been birding for something like 18 years, we’re more like developmentally challenged bird tourists. We enjoy going to places where birds hang out, we like seeing the birds, I like to snap photos, but finding rarities is not a high priority. On this particular trip, for various reasons, we were almost completely unprepared. Serious twitchers* arrive at their destinations with a list of target species, having thoroughly studied their intended prey, and well versed in juvenile plumage, alternate color morphs, and vocalizations. We had a dogeared field guide borrowed from the library and some binoculars. We had no idea which species were rare and which were commonplace. We were like children, oohing and ahhing at the pretty birds when Ike pointed them out, nodding appreciatively when he gave us the names. In short, we were pathetic. Ike took this in stride.

Back in the SUV, sun just starting to peek over the horizon on the first day. Ike had described the itinerary thus: “The trip will begin with a drive to Sri Phang Nga, birding at the park, afternoon birding in a different location, then a drive to the lake. First day on the lake, we’ll go for birds around the eastern lower tributaries and then the last day we’ll move to another substation deep in the heart of the sanctuary to search for the rare species. On the last day, we’ll drive back to Phuket after lunch.”

On that first afternoon, we were thrilled to see our first pitta. Pittas are small, (generally) brilliantly coloured birds that skulk in the dark underbrush and are so legendarily difficult to see that one fellow spent a year travelling around the world on a quest to spot all 34 species of Pitta (see “Calidris reads: Costa Rica–The Jewel Hunter). This particular bird—a Malayan banded pitta—had been somewhat acclimatized to humans by the simple expedient of someone putting out meal worms in the same place in the jungle at the same time every day. Even shy birds aren’t stupid and this one obliged by showing itself just long enough for me to snap some photos. As far as we were concerned, this “twitch”* already made the trip a success.

We motored across the magnificence of the lake in a traditional Thai longtail boat, awestruck by the vertical green walls that thrust out of the water around us, hills and islands in rank after rank disappearing into the distance. There is no development on the shores of this lake, which is preserved as a park, thanks to the revered Thai king who spearheaded the creation of the reservoir. We occasionally passed another boat, usually full of other tourists.

Grey-headed fish eagles, ospreys, and white-bellied sea eagles flew by or perched on tree snags poking out of the water. A wild elephant drank and splashed on the shore.

We turned around yet another headland and spotted our accommodations for the night—the aforementioned floating bungalows. All the buildings of the camp are joined together by floating wooden walkways cobbled together from old bits of logs and lumber, many of which are half-submerged and/or rock alarmingly when you walk on them.

Lunch was a typical Thai spread of baked fish, rice, veg, and fruit served up in the—you guessed it—floating diner.

After a heavenly swim in the lake, we were laying down for a siesta when Ike called us out excitedly: “Ice cream!” Although it seemed like it must be a heat-induced hallucination, sure enough, as we tumbled out of our hut and hurried down the walkway, which rebounded wildly with every step, we spotted the last thing we expected to find in this castaway location: a beaming man scooping ice cream from a big tub in his wooden boat. Apparently, he makes a daily run of several hours to bring the treat out to the camp. How he kept it frozen, I have no idea. You could have any flavour you wanted, as long as it was vanilla. And although I’m usually a chocolate gal, I can tell you, I’ve never tasted anything more welcome than that plain vanilla ice cream, eaten on a floating dock on a steaming hot afternoon in a remote part of a jungle-shrouded lake in Thailand.

*Twitcher: A birdwatcher whose main goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, i.e., “twitches.”

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

First-time Cruising

I admit it: cruising has never been high on my travel list. I understand the appeal for many people, but I had my reasons why I steered clear. Recently, however, several factors came together to nudge me onboard. Like a good traveller, I tried to set aside my preconceptions and be open to a new experience.

After eight days at sea, I had compiled a stack of notes too long for one blog, so I’ve broken the topic up into two. This first entry will discuss the basics: general comfort and atmosphere, stateroom, food and beverages, computers onboard, and staff. I’ve assigned a letter grade for each category and included jottings about whatever caught my notice, good or bad. Since this is my first cruise, I’m not sure whether some things are specific to the cruise line (Norwegian) or common to the whole industry, however, one of my travel companions has cruised before and we were able to compare experiences, which gave me some context.

General Comfort & Atmosphere  Decor ranged from bright and colourful to garish in some areas (e.g., purple, orange, and silver in one lounge). Staterooms were calmer and more tasteful. Twelve elevators seemed sufficient to transport everyone at most times, except when large crowds came through at the same time (e.g., when the theatre shows let out, there might be short waits). Pools were small but adequate, since surprisingly few people actually go in. Staff were vigilant about keeping youngsters out of the adult pool (bonus if you’re an adult, not so much if you’re underage and trying to sneak in).

It could be hard to find quiet spaces outdoors, as there was almost always loud music broadcast. Even in the upper-deck “quiet zone” you could still hear it.

Grade: A-

Stateroom  Our room in the cheapest price range was excellent, more space than we expected , bed large and comfy, everything clean and in good repair, TV remote didn’t work probably due to a dead battery. Despite it being an inside cabin, it was quiet and had no smells. I am not claustrophobic, so having an inside cabin (no window) didn’t bother me.

Pet peeve: toilet set into bathroom at an angle that made sitting on it straight impossible, I had to sit sideways. Awkward and uncomfortable. (I know—too much information!)

Grade: A

Food  We did not eat in the paid restaurants but tried all the included (free) eateries. Food was plentiful, available nearly round the clock, and of solidly good–not brilliant–quality. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a foodie when it comes to savouries. For me, the main dishes were fine. However, my companion–who has cruised before–was not impressed, especially when she compared to her previous cruise on another line.

Pet peeve: French fries were universally crap. Thin and cold, like they salvaged them out of the trash bins of the closest fast food joint. Come on, folks, I know you can do better than this.

Grade: B

Desserts  Given their central position in my solar system, desserts form a separate category. Sadly, most were based on the “pretty but virtually tasteless” model. What my companion has aptly christened “sweet goo.” Comes in a variety of colours and shapes, sometimes shaped like cake, sometimes in a bowl, but always the main “flavour” is sweet. I stopped eating these after one day, having sampled enough to know they would all follow this pattern.

Bonus point: what saved desserts from a D grade was the crepe bar, where the chef hustled up fresh crepes with your choice of toppings. Yum.

Grade: C-

Beverages  The expected restrictions (pay as you go alcohol and soft drinks) aside, beverages did not impress. Watery, sugary “fruit” drinks and unsweetened ice tea were on offer at meals, plus coffee & tea.

Pet peeve: fruit drink bar. Fresh fruit and veggies aren’t expensive–they provide racks of them at every meal. But if you want those same fruits and veggies freshly squeezed and blended, you have to pay. That’s just stupid.

Saved from C- by unrestricted palatable water and ice.

Grade: C

Computer  Internet available but expensive. I wonder how long they’ll hold out on this one, considering that the grubbiest little cafe onshore anywhere now provides FREE wifi and people expect it.

Pet peeve: the onboard Internet cafe computers do not provide any programs for general use e.g., Word. They only allow paid access to Internet.

Grade: D

Staff  In general, I found the staff to be excellent, very friendly, helpful, and efficient. 

Bonus point, bumping this grade from A to A+, goes to the Washy-Washy Lady* who turns an incredibly dull but vital task into a bouncy moment of song-and-dance fun. For me, and, I’m sure, everyone else on the cruise, it will be her face, voice, and cheery greeting that stays in memory.

Grade: A+

*For you fellow cruise neophytes, the Washy-Washy Lady stands at the main door of the central dining room with a spritzer full of hand sanitizer, encouraging and assisting everyone to cleanse their hands before eating. Our WWL was a smiling, ad-libbing, entertaining individual who, I’m sure, had a night job headlining at some Philippine cabaret.

To be continued.