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.

NOLA & All That Jazz

louis_armstrong_restoredNew Orleans. Why does that name draw me? I’m not really a city person, yet I’ve always wanted to visited NOLA.

I definitely associate it with the exciting history of American music, for which I blame Ken Burns and his excellent series, Jazz.

Maybe it’s the hint of Mardi Gras that seems to linger in the air all year round. There’s the possibility of exotic Cajun food and French pastries to tempt, plus the proximity to natural habitats of bayou and mangrove that promise bird species for me to add to my list.

Since this will be a winter trip, the warm climate appeals; although I don’t expect to be swimming outdoors in December, I do hope to escape subzero temperatures for a while. I also like the idea of visiting an antebellum plantation.

The visit to NOLA will be a few days tagged on after the end of a cruise out of Tampa, not a huge amount of time, so I’m happy to focus just on the city and nearby.

I started by doing quick online research on the average Dec/Jan temperatures in that area. Double-checked that I wouldn’t have to worry about hurricanes at that time of year (whew!). I also used Expedia to compare the cost of flying into Tampa/out of NOLA versus Tampa in/out—it was actually slightly cheaper, hurray!

Next stop was my local library to pick up any available guidebooks. As it happened, they had only one on the shelf, but luckily, it was a good one: the 2016 edition of Moon’s New Orleans.

In its pages, I discovered that NOLA is the home of the Jazz National Historical Park, run by the U.S. National Park Service. According to Wikipedia, “…created in 1994 to celebrate the origins and evolution of jazz….The Park provides a setting for sharing the cultural history of the people and places which helped to shape the development and progression of jazz in New Orleans.” They actually have “ranger-musicians” who perform and educate visitors. How cool is that? They also offer a free brochure outlining an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites in the city and you can download an MP3 version of tour narration to listen to on your own mobile device. Historic education embracing modern technology. Go, U.S. National Parks! (DYK?—it’s the 100th anniversary of the USNPS. Happy birthday, you wonderful Park People!) The Jazz National Park moves onto my “must-do” list for this trip.

Thinking about a boat trip into the bayou, I scanned the guidebook’s list of tours, but didn’t see one that really grabbed me, so I Googled “birding tours Lafayette” and found The Atchafalaya Experience, which seems to tick a lot of my boxes: small tours, experienced, knowledgeable guides, philosophy of getting out into the bayou in a quiet boat and seeing what there is to see on that day, rather than chasing down ‘gators or specific creatures. I know that December likely won’t yield as many species as a spring or summer trip, and I won’t complain if I’m chilly or damp. On the up side, mosquitos probably won’t bother us much!

My companion, who has visited NOLA on business before, was keen to select our accommodations in the city, so I acquiesced gracefully; after all, I do 99% of the travel planning/booking, it’s good to let go the reins once in a while. He chose the Hotel St. Marie for its location (just off Bourbon Street), price (moderate), and streetside balconies, while I liked the reams of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s see if she lives up to her reputation.

Whenever I hit a new destination, I have to check out bakeries, pastry shops, and chocolate emporiums. I have a sweet tooth, but I have very high standards: pastries and chocolates that are merely sweet don’t cut it. They must have rich and satisfying flavours. A beautiful presentation doesn’t hurt—but I’ve had too many fancy cakes and bon-bons that were all looks and no taste to fall into that trap. In NOLA, I’ll be visiting Blue Frog Chocolates, Sucré, La Boulangerie, and Le Croissant d’Or. Good thing I have some walking tours ahead to work off all that sugar.

Speaking of walking tours, I’ll round out my time in southern Louisiana with at least one of those plantation tours. Not very politically correct of me, I know, but I will mitigate my guilt by choosing the tour of Laura, which focuses on the history of the plantation’s women, both free and enslaved. I’ll never be hungry again!

Anyone planning a trip to NOLA? Let me know what you are looking forward to doing, seeing, or eating.