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.

Wild Animals I Have Annoyed

Elephants are majestic and beautiful. The babies can even be cute, with those little trunks and mischievous eyes, hiding between Big Mama’s massive legs. Awwww.

Elephants can also be very, very scary.

It was my second trip to Africa and I had already seen a lot of elephants. Elephants tearing up trees for lunch. Elephants bathing in rivers and rolling in the wet mud. Elephants playing or trundling across the horizon on elephant business. I had been extremely close to some of those pachyderms. Not that I approached them, but often when I stopped at roadside to watch, their meanderings would bring them near. They would continue doing whatever it was they were doing, clearly aware of my presence and about as concerned as if I were a small, harmless mammal, which is probably what I was from their towering point of view. They seemed like gargantuan but amusing vegetarians.

I had read all the safety tips for safaris and I never, ever left my car. So long as you’re in your car, the guidebooks say, the animals see you as a part of it and, since they have long since learned that cars don’t do much other than chug along well-worn tracks, they view you as neither prey nor predator and, consequently, of little interest.

As I drove slowly down one of the backroads of Kruger National Park, my car topped a hill. Below, about a hundred metres away, a herd of elephants was crossing the road. I stopped the car to enjoy the sight and to stay a non-threatening distance away. The group consisted of cows and their offspring of various ages.

As the parade wound down, the tiniest calf of all scuttled across, followed by the largest cow. I guessed that she was the matriarch of the group, bringing up the rear to make sure no one was left behind or nabbed by lions in her absence.

Maybe she was feeling especially protective of that newborn calf, or maybe she didn’t like the way my car was perched above them on the hill. Whatever it was, she turned in the road to face me.

Oh, crap, I thought.

All the signs of an elephant preparing to charge flashed through my mind. Direct stare: check.  Ears flapping: check. Trumpeting: check. Trunk swinging: check.

Double crap.

I threw the car in reverse and began backing up just as she charged. It is nearly impossible to drive rapidly backwards down a narrow, winding road while keeping terrified eyes on an elephant that is looming ever-larger in your windshield. Within moments, I missed the track and backed firmly into a thorn bush.

The elephant pounded up to the bumper of the car and stood there, swaying with menace. She stamped her feet so close that I was sure she was going to mash the hood. I wondered briefly if the damage waiver on the rental car covered crushing by angry elephant. She backed up and made repeated short charges at the car, trumpeting furiously all the while.

I remembered every detail of every photo and video I’d seen that demonstrated the destructive power of the great grey beasts—the tusk thrust through a window, the rolling of a VW Bug to the edge of a precipice, the flattening of a sedan when an ellie chose to make a joke out of reclining upon said vehicle.

I shouted to my companions: “Get down, and don’t look her in the eye!” as if the challenge of our puny gazes could incite this behemoth to any greater wrath.

The matriarch was shortly joined by a second, smaller cow, which ran around the melee, calling excitedly. I thought perhaps this was Big Mama’s teenage daughter, come to join in the fun of terrorizing tourists. Luckily, she provided a desperately needed distraction for the murderous matriarch. After what seemed like an eternity of close and hostile action, Big Mama turned away for a quick tete-a-tete with her daughter. Instantly, I slammed down the accelerator to send the car past the two elephants, and shot off down the road, in the opposite direction to the herd, needless to say.

Shaking with fear, I spent the next couple of hours reciting nonsensical expletives and repeatedly reminding my companions that we had actually just been charged by an elephant, like it would have somehow slipped their minds.

Do I still think elephants are majestic and beautiful and sometimes cute? Absolutely. Would I go to Africa again on safari? In a heartbeat. Do I want to see wild elephants up close and personal? Not on your life. But I wouldn’t trade this memory for a month of free nights in a calm, safe resort hotel.

Have you had a frightening encounter with wild animals while travelling? I’d love to hear about it.