Khao Yai Waterfall
Wildlife in Bangkok is scarce. The city is a most unfriendly, otherworldly landscape to native species. In two months of living in the city, I sighted a handful of lizard species, notably including the impressive water monitor, Varanus Salvator. When we sailed Argo into the mouth of the Chao Phraya I lamented the lack of sea and shore birds. As we chocked up more and more time on the river during our commute and my eye became keener, I sighted a dozen or more bird species at the river mouth including herons, gulls, crows, and even two kingfishers. That’s about it though, unless of course you want to count Bangkok’s population of gargantuan rat.
Chao Phraya Trash
The lack of wildlife in Bangkok can be put down to habitat change. The city’s streets and buildings bare no resemblance to the delta upon which they are built. The cacophony of noise and light that blares all night would drive even the most tolerant of wildlife away. The dark asphalt and concrete structures radiate heat, which raises the temperature of the city a few degrees centigrade, at least. The power of this heat overcomes and dissipates the anvil clouds that struggle to form at the city’s outskirts. As a result patterns of precipitation change, not that the city’s labyrinth of gutters and storm water sewers handle the water they receive in a natural way. Bangkok’s klongs suffocate with rubbish and their muddy bottoms are now composed of equal parts dirt and plastic. Indeed the amount of plastic in the river is so phenomenal that each time out boat’s propeller touches bottom it becomes so desperately fouled as to require manual clearing. Living in the barren city streets make experiencing Khao Yai all the more incredible.
Khao Yai Mountains
While planning to live in Bangkok for a few months, I began looking for attractions within a weekend trip’s reach. Khao Yai immediately stood out. It is the oldest protected area in Thailand, and today is the nation’s third largest National Park. Historically, Khao Yai’s tropical forested mountains were home to a wonderful array of species, from Elephant, to bear, to leopard, and tiger. A startling abundance of wildlife still exists here thanks to the lands protected status.
I had two short days in which to travel the ~75 miles to Pak Chong, the town which services the parks northern entrance, to explore, and return. Given the tight schedule, I found a well-rated tour operator and guesthouse and signed up for a ½ day tour followed by a full day. In choosing an organized tour I lamented missing out on grueling solitary hikes, but my choice proved to be quite prescient. Green Leaf Guesthouse and Eco-Tours proved stellar in every respect.
After a metro ride to a taxi, to a bus, to a taxi, to Green Leaf, we checked in and ate a quick lunch before piling into the back of a pickup, which was to be our transport for the next two days. The half-day tour started at three PM and explored the surrounding area outside the park. My choices were vindicated and expectations rose when little more than 5 minutes down the road our guide, Joe, spotted an oriental whip snake from the road. This species turned out to be prolific in the area, but it still takes a very keen eye to spot one at distance while moving. In the ensuing contest to see which of our 5 group members could spot one first, there was no winner. I was particularly happy about this find, and the two sighted the following day as they proved to be highly photogenic and provided the best photo opportunities of the trip.
Oriental Whip Snake B&W
Oriental Whip Snake Striking a Pose
After an informative discussion about the snake, we pushed on to a natural spring used by locals as a water source and a swimming hole. We opted not to swim, but Joe exercised his knowledge and keen eye for us again, explaining that the locals cannot drink the water as it is calcium rich and causes kidney stones. He also found a variety of species around the swimming hole, notably an herbivorous millipede, which was offered for handling. Continuing down the road we stopped again at a monastery. At the back of the yard, Joe led us down a flight of steep and slippery stairs into a cave. He quickly located for us a tarantula, a scorpion spider of Harry Potter movie fame, and a carnivorous centipede, which was handled with great care. We observed the local colony of bats, and Joe noted the odorless guano covering the floor. The removal of guano from the cave is prohibited except by permit, because it can be used to make explosives. Joe told us, however that small quantities could be smuggled out and mixed into coffee as a prank. Given the lack of smell, he claimed no one has ever suspected it (I skipped coffee with breakfast). We also observed the caves strangest occupants, a series of Buddhist alters, which the monks use for meditation practice. The silent darkness of the cave did seem a perfect place for meditation, though it must be troubling for some not knowing was lurks in the dark!
Natural Spring Khao Yai
Descending to the Cave!
The Day’s Last Light
From the cave we drove on to the foot of a hill containing a cave home to a much larger bat colony. Joe entertained us with small tricks and pranks including seedpods, which upon being wetted explode with force. We found this out when he told us to place them under our tongues. I also enjoyed the cool oranges and reds of the sunset soaking the valley. Thunder frequently rolled in the distance and echoed off the surrounding peaks eventually reaching our ears across fields of sugarcane and tapioca. At last the bats emerged flying in unison, flowing like a stream through the trees and over our heads (see video in earlier post).
The second day was no less spectacular. At Dawn we headed for the park gates. Guards collect fees from foreigners (its free for Thai citizens) to pay for the parks operations. Our first stop was a lookout across the green mountains of the park. We then cruised the road spotting more whip snakes and stopped at the visitor center. We hiked for a few hours through the jungle following white-handed gibbons, also encountering scorpions and flame crested woodpeckers.
Back on the road we ate lunch in the pickup bed, but were interrupted when our guide spotted a great hornbill landing to feed its young in a nearby tree. This spectacular bird stands more than a meter tall. Again we were interrupted and quickly rushed across the park to view a matriarchal heard of elephants. We then stopped at a waterfall for a drink break before taking back to the road. The remaining day was spent cruising the road where we spotted a bull elephant and two groups of Pigtail Macaques. Unfortunately for me, we did not spot and cobras or vipers, but the day was capped as a Greater Racketed Drongo flew over the truck as we exited the park gates. This bird completed my realistic checklist of wildlife that I had hoped to see.
White Handed Gibbons
Juvenile Pig Tailed Macaque
Despite its relative protection, this wonderful landscape is still threatened. Locals surrounding the park dislike snakes and will kill any encountered regardless of threat. Logging has claimed the forests outside the park, and illegal logging still continues in the park. Development encroaches on the parks borders and makes it more of an isolated habitat island each day. Locals also build illegally within the park borders. Annoyingly, a downside of the parks free admission for locals, the roads within the park are used as weekend getaways for motorcyclists and even for transit by commuters. Many of these individuals ignored the traffic laws and thus safety of the wildlife.
Hope remains, though. Recently, there have been unsupported sightings of tigers returning to this area. Although, these sightings may not be valid, the ease of spotting elephants and macaques along the road suggests wildlife can tolerate current levels of human presence in the area. Our guides, whose knowledge of local flora and fauna was excellent, also proved to aware global concerns. If their awareness can be shared and spread, protection of the land will be guaranteed.
The town Pak Chong is experiencing a boom thanks to the parks growing population. With smart planning this rich ecosystem can be supported by ecotourism and economic growth. As a parting gift and source of optimism we watched fireflies in the dying light of day. Having disappeared from much of Thailand thanks to light pollution, fireflies still thrive here in the natural dark of night.
Sunset Khao Yai