Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 2

Ike took us on one more boat-birding expedition at sunset that first day before we headed for bed. Our hut had no solid window coverings, just flaps that you could prop up to let the breeze in, so it was essentially open to the bugs flying in and out at will. As to bugs on the floor, I think they kept it meticulously swept, but the safest plan was to simply not look. We slept on the floor with the equivalent of a yoga mat and a sheet and I spent the night imagining that armies of creep-crawlies were marching up my arms, around my neck, and straight for my face. Gah!

Sunrise the next morning was spectacular as we rose before dawn to be on the water at first light. As promised, Ike took us even further into the most remote areas of the park in hopes of seeing some of the rarer birds. Hornbills with improbable shapes soared over our heads, looking like pterodactyls.

A pair of broadbills—crimson red with bright blue beaks—lurked just out of clear camera range. A turquoise and orange kingfisher dove off an overhanging branch.We saw monkeys and macaques clambering in the trees, as well as a slow loris sitting very quietly, no doubt hoping we hadn’t seen it. A large monitor lizard swam lazily past our boat.

For our second night on the lake, we docked at a camp that made the previous night’s accommodations look like The Ritz. This was well beyond where the tourist day-trippers ventured and there were only a few other guests, fishermen, most likely.

Before turning in, I went to brush my teeth at the one and only sink in the one and only bathroom. There was no water flowing from the faucet, which didn’t bother me as I was using bottled water anyway. So I brushed and rinsed and spat—and felt water splashing against my feet. I peered under the sink and realized that there was no pipe connected, the water simply drained directly onto the floor. Such a no-fuss solution to the problem of plumbing.

WARNING: The following paragraphs contain graphic material that may be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

So, sometime during the night, the one and only toilet in the one and only bathroom got plugged up. Which meant that morning found a gaggle of rather desperate guests wandering around in search of somewhere to conduct their morning ablutions. Being the sole woman in camp, I was probably more desperate than most.

Before continuing, I must harken back to an email exchange I had with Ike when organizing the tour.

Ike: Are you okay with a rustic camp?

Me: How rustic is rustic? I’m okay with anything except squat toilets.**

Ike: Ha, ha! No, I promise, absolutely no squat toilets.

Fast forward to the camp with the only flush toilet nonoperational. Someone kindly points me down the hill to a corrugated metal shack. I have a strong feeling that I know what I’ll find inside, and yes, indeed, there it is, the hole in the floor, and a big plastic cistern and scoop next to it (this is in lieu of toilet paper, of course).

We are all stronger (and more resourceful) than we know, and I’m happy to report that I did survive the ST challenge. Poor Ike was mortified when he realized what had happened and apologized profusely, but really, when you choose to go “into the wild,” you just have to accept that things might not go according to plan. Adaptability is all part of the adventure.

**Squat toilet: A hole in the floor over which one is expected to crouch while…well, you know. Not uncommon in parts of Asia.

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

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.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

There’s just something about giant pumpkins.

You may rhapsodize about your royal-size rutabagas, you may hail the humungous Hubbard squash, or commend the colossal cabbage. All are worthy, but all bow before the immenseness of the Great Orange One.

Nova Scotia’s Hants County is a hotbed of oversize vegetable growing, thanks to a man named Howard Dill, who developed the Atlantic Giant variety of pumpkin back in the 1980s. Today, his namesake farm sells wanna-be growers enough seed annually to sprout around 2.4 million pumpkin plants.

Let us be clear. These are not the pumpkins you see in your grocery store at Halloween, the ones you carve and set out as Jack-o-lanterns. They’re not even the same ones your angelic child chooses as “the biggest pumpkin in the field” and poses beside for the family Facebook snappie.

These pumpkins are really, really big. To put this in perspective, I point out that Windsor, Nova Scotia, hosts an annual pumpkin regatta, in which jolly yachties hollow out examples of said squash, sit in them, and race along an 800-metre watery course. And those are the babies, the ones not big enough to compete at weigh-offs. The world record pumpkin last year tipped the scales at nearly 1,200 kilos.

Last September, I found myself in Nova Scotia, right on the border of Giant Pumpkin Country, just at the time when the big ‘uns were being harvested and trucked into local weigh-offs. There was no question of resisting the siren call of the splendid squash, despite the strange look the BnB proprietor gave me when I asked for help finding the off-the-beaten-track event.

I drove through endless orchards of picture-perfect Annapolis Valley apples before finally spotting the farm market that was hosting the event. As I puttered through to the overflow parking in an adjacent field, I had a great view of the line-up of titans waiting to be judged, each reclining regally on its own pallet board. The pumpkins ranged in colour from chalky white through greenish-yellow to deep orange. They brought to mind a ring of rotund sultans at ease after a particularly palatial repast, their bodies bulging out in unique, sometimes grotesque, forms.

I joined the crowd of giant-vegetable fanciers in dungarees, plaid jackets, and baseball hats. Forty or fifty people stood around patiently, chatting and commenting on each entry as it was weighed. There was good-natured ribbing of some of the growers, obviously well-known figures in the area. Hot dogs and hot chocolate took the nip out of the autumn air. Someone was filming the entire contest, which took a couple of hours to complete. A reporter from a farming magazine was on hand to take notes and photos. There was no hurry. It had the comfortable feel of a local event where hard-working folks took a well-deserved day off to connect with neighbors and display the fruits of their labors.

As the assistants worked a sling under and around the next competitor so it could be lifted by a frontloader, the crowd would begin guessing its weight. Due to the eccentric shapes and varying densities, this was no easy task; a pumpkin that appeared larger might actually turn out to be lighter in weight. This uncertainty merely compounded the tense atmosphere of cut-throat competition.

Before an entry was lowered onto the scale, a judge checked it underneath and occasionally used a whisk broom to clean the bottom, I suppose in case the extra half gram of dirt was the deciding factor in this battle of the heavyweights.

Each grower—young and old, man or woman—was encouraged to pose for a photo beside their entry as it rested on the scales with the weight clearly showing in the background. I imagined a farmhouse wall covered with these snapshots stretching back years, perhaps with an occasional ribbon tacked alongside.

Top prize that day went to a 1202-lb behemoth; not exactly world-record class, but certainly the biggest darn vegetable I’d ever seen. As they loaded the Great Pumpkin onto its owner’s truck for the triumphal journey home, I toasted it with my hot chocolate and wished it and its mates all the best. The winners would move up to compete in the county fair and perhaps to even greater glory at the provincial level. The losers might still contribute to someone’s closely guarded pumpkin breeding scheme.

I carried back from Hants County my own sample single-seed packet of Atlantic Giant. Someday, I may find the perfect spot—the most sincere pumpkin patch—to nurture that seed. It may look just like any other pumpkin seed, but I know it has the potential to bring forth a champion.

What have you discovered by exploring rural backroads on your travels? Share your story in a comment.