Saturday, 28 March 2015

Thailand .... the verdict !

Thailand is without a shadow of a doubt a great holiday destination, so much so that from my limited experience some places have become too popular, too overcrowded for my particular taste and in that I think the whole of Phuket Island is probably included. Places like the Similian islands or Phi Phi have become equally sought out day trip destinations and I would avoid them in the future.  North of Phuket International Airport there is still a huge tract of largely unspoilt countryside taking the 3 hour drive to Kuraburi. Khao Lak might not tick everyone's boxes but I thought it was a good mix between commercial and not. Birding wise it certainly isn't a hot spot but, as I found out, Laem Pakarang is certainly worth a visit. The Blue Lagoon was excellent value for money at around £65 B&B
With hindsight I would have organised my trip in a different way. I would have stayed at the Kuraburi Greenview Resort for longer, maybe 5 nights, and taken the opportunity to travel to the nearby National Park for a day out. The birding in this area was very good. Green view also operate the Surin Island trips so I would have arranged to visit the Surins from there asking them to mind my baggage until my return. This would have avoided the additional costs of getting off Koh Phra Thong which added about £45 to the cost of an overnight trip. Greenview Resort was excellent value for money at only £35 B&B even if the usually cold buffet breakfast left much to be desired . Evening meals and the price of a large beer where very competitive.
I would certainly have visited Koh Phra Thong just for the experience and should have taken advantage of the offer of an island tour which at £36 for two wasn't that cheap for a half day tour but when you evaluate the total cost of a holiday you do realise it's small change in comparison and increases the memories, particularly if you don't return.
As for Phrathong Nature Resort, would I return ? The answer is yes but probably for a shorter period, maybe a week which is enough to see and do all there is without  feeling the need for a return to more everyday luxury like a fresh water shower. The danger is of course that an attempt to revisit the same destination can lead to a totally different experience. Different fellow guests, different staff, different weather, oh and most importantly, further commercial development. My advice would certainly be go now, sooner better than later. Accommodation including breakfast was inexpensive, around £20 per night for the two of us but food and drink is a bit dearer due to transport costs, that is also reflected in the expense of getting to the resort too. I guess that overall it cost us £50 per day but that included our usually quite substantial drinks bill.
As for getting to Thailand, well Qatar have a poor record with us. In our last 6 flights we have had missed connections and long delays on three journeys, failed to have our luggage arrive on a fourth. Not a good record for this supposedly self proclaimed 5 star airline. The food is pretty awful of late too ! I would check around and compare prices but Emirates was an altogether better experience in our opinion. We will use Qatar again though... money talks and we still have a £300 credit to use.
Getting to Thailand is the most expensive part although currently flights to Bangkok can be purchased for £450, Phuket £500pp. 
Once in Thailand there are some bargains to be had too. The cheapest large 650ml Chang beer we found was 60 baht or about £1.20. The dearest on the Surins 65 baht for a 330mml can but you can understand the transport costs there too. A main meal was anything from £2.00 upwards but for a substantial plate full. Eating is cheap although street food isn't as cheap as you might be lead to believe from other travel writers.
If you fancy snorkelling then a trip to the Surins is a must but it's cheaper just to book an open return ticket and hire a tent when you get there. You can then order your food freshly cooked and hopefully hot. Although the food was plentiful, too much by far in fact, on a package it was always preprepared and cold on serving no matter what time you seemed to arrive. A cold fried egg is not a beautiful thing for breakfast !
In summary though I have nothing but praise for the part of Thailand we saw. I know that we merely scratched the surface and that my haul for birds was pretty pathetic compared to someone who took a full time bird tour and covered the whole of this large country but remember, I was considering my non birding wife and trying to bring compromise to the trip.
I know I'm not alone in my holiday needs so if you are another couple like us, we both recommend this trip highly.
For winter sun, great food, friendly people it's no wonder Thailand has become so popular.

 Some money saving ideas and recommendations for you besides booking the Surin Islands.
1) If your baggage is delayed inform them at the airport you intend requesting compensation for essential items. Makes life much simpler and we collected $95 at the airport on the way home.
2)If you ask a hotel to book you a taxi, particularly several days ahead and some distance away, like the airport, check your bill. I only checked mine when I got home to discover it was on the bill. No wonder the taxi driver gave me an extra deep bow and wide smile and pocketed what was now a £35 tip !
3) If you are asked if you want to pay in £'s or local currency when presenting your credit card to pay a bill always choose local. I couldn't remember which was best and opted for £'s. Another £25 wasted on one hotel bill alone!
Never mind, it's only money he said between gritted teeth !!!!
Hope this report is of use, thanks for reading.
cheers Dave

Some useful web sites:-

Laem Pakarang

On my final full day I had decided to take the advice of the German guy who this time gave me his calling card. It turned out he lives in Thailand and, until it was destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami, he used to have a house in the spot he was urging me to visit.. Laem Pakarang.
I had to investigate further, there was a taxi usually parked opposite the hotel and using the map on the call card I was able to clarify the fee was only 300 baht or £6 but trying to negotiate a return pick up was altogether more difficult so taking her over to the reception I was able to explain I needed someone to pick me up again just in case I was going somewhere in the middle of nowhere. As it happened I needn't have worried. Dropped off by the Tsunami monument there are several bars and a taxi rank. Ah well, I confirmed I didn't want to be picked up until 5.00pm giving me a whole 7 hours to look around.Fingers crossed it would be worthwhile!
I walked on to the beach to be greeted by a sight of the distant sea and a beach made up of rocky rubble interspaced with patches of sand and a quite a few rock pools. There were several locals searching the rock pools for seafood so I asked one if the tide was coming in and he indicated it was. Things were looking up ! 
I started to walk out towards the sea but was cautious as I could see the causeway I had chosen to walk on would easily get cut off so after a few attempts to close in on some Turnstones and a Lesser Sandplover I decided to retreat to the safety of being nearer the shore. A wise move. From over half a mile out the sea was soon within a hundred yards or so, driving towards me a variety of birds. Knowing I could beat a hasty retreat from this distance I went out to meet them and was rewarded with my first ever Far Eastern Curlew.
Eastern Curlew   Thailand
Huge compared to the Whimbrel it was keeping company with.
Eastern Curlew   Thailand
A couple of Bar-tailed Godwit ware following the tide in nearby.
Bar-tailed Godwit   Thailand
The tide was pushing me back but I managed a few hurried shots of some Red-necked Stint.
Little Stint  Thailand
and some of a personal favourite, the Terek Sandpiper
Terek Sandpiper   Thailand
But before I knew it I was back on the beach taking shots from the guaranteed high tide line.
Laem Pakarang coral shingle beach  Thailand
Just me, a dog and the occasional walker. The beach is a weird affair, it's made up of fragments of sun bleached white coral and it's like walking on a huge pile of dog biscuits. Quite hard work as you sink in as you walk along it.
From this safe vantage spot I settled down in the hope that I would soon have some of the birds coming in closer to me and to a certain extent it worked.
A Lesser Sand Plover grabbing a worm or two before the sand was submerged.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
but one by one the birds retreated to a rock perch as the sea came in
Pacific Reef Egret   Thailand
At full tide there were numerous rocks sticking out of the water, some gave better refuge than others.
Terek Sandpiper   Thailand
Some were distinctly unsuitable for an undisturbed sleep !
Grey Plover   Thailand
Pacifc Golden Plover   Thailand
Some were quite distant, but with a 2.0x converter on my 500mm lens they were within distance for a reasonable record shot.
Whimbrel   Thailand
Some were so close I didn't need one!
Common Sandpiper   Thailand
I walked to the distant point and found huge numbers of small waders all huddled together on the beach
Terek Sandpiper   Thailand
Interesting to scan but not good photographically.
I walked back along the beach and towards the cafes. A cold drink beckoned. Fortunately the sun had kept behind cloud for much of the morning but it was still very,very hot and I had drank nearly 1.5 litres of water already. It was about 2.30pm and I still had 2.5 hours left, I walked back to the point again but by now the roost had been moved by the tide. Along the way though I had caught up with this Stripe-throated Bulbul with a spider it had caught.
Stripe-throated Bulbul
and a close up encounter with a Richard's Pipit.
Richard's Pipit   Thailand
It was just about high tide by now, lots of birds had moved from their original perches but I did manage to get fairly close to a Common Kingfisher sat on the beach.
Common Kingfisher   Thailand
Then I spotted my "bird of the day"... an unfortunately distant Grey-tailed Tatler.
Grey-tailed Tatler   Thailand
Further down I came across the Whimbrel roost...I have never seen so many in one place, this is a few of them.
Whimbrel   Thailand
I spotted a couple of walkers heading towards me, the Whimbrels between us. They would fly.
I had enough time to remove my teleconverter and get ready for a flight shot, I knew I'd struggle with the 2.0x attached.
Sure enough up they went and this was my capture.
Whimbrel   Thailand
I decided to call it a day as by now there was little left to see, even the Whimbrel headed off to a distant place.
Whimbrel   Thailand
It had proved to be an excellent day and I was glad I'd made the effort. Quite a few new birds for the trip, many quite common like Little Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover   Thailand
and Greenshank
Greenshank   Thailand
others less so like Pacific Golden Plover
Pacific Golden Plover   Thailand
Some offered better photos than others
Pacific Golden Plover   Thailand
but I had at least got some.
Grey Plover    Thailand
There would be plenty to keep me occupied when I got home.
Ruddy Turnstone    Thailand
And so it turned out to be. 
It was a good end to a great holiday.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Khao Lak

The drive south from Kuraburi takes about 1.5 hours, it's approximately half way back to Phuket International Airport. The scenery along the way is quite stunning, everywhere is incredibly green despite the heat and the land soon rising from sea level to higher mountains inland still all covered in trees.
Khao Lak itself seemed to be a strung out ribbon development along the main highway from what I saw. There didn't seem to be much of a centre although there is a working harbour. Much of the development is hotel property, usually set in large grounds it seemed. Ours was no exception.
Blue Lagoon, Khao Lak
The rooms were all individual bungalows set in perfectly manicured gardens but there was quite a bit of water around. The channels running alongside our room were tidal. The grounds themselves held a few birds, Common Mynah,Oriental Magpie Robin, Common Tailorbird and the odd Dove.Nothing to get excited about !
The first morning I was up at the crack of dawn as this shot of two Yellow-vented Bulbul confirms !

Yellow-vented Bulbul  Thailand
I think I woke them up walking in the nearby woodland. However, the insects were wide awake and I paid the price for not using repellent too.
Other than a Chestnut-headed Bee-eater or two there wasn't much to shout about.
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater   Thailand
but as I was eating breakfast Al fresco, as I do when ever I can, I spotted a Brown Shrike in bushes across the road. 30 minutes later and I was able to relocate it down on the beach.

Brown Shrike   Thailand
I also found a pair of Indian Roller were hanging around the same location.
Indian Roller   Thailand
Overall though, I wasn't too impressed with the opportunities that seemed to present themselves but there again I wasn't too bothered either. Later that morning we borrowed the bicycles the hotel provides free of charge and cycled up to the main highway to look for a cash machine. On the way there I found a little track leading down to a sea inlet and beach. There was a Lesser Sand Plover and a Common Sandpiper to be seen. That I decided would be the target for the following morning and sure enough it was but the tide was all wrong and there was nothing to be seen.
Having enjoyed our snorkelling trip to the Surin Islands we decided to take a trip out to the Similan Islands the next day. Taking just a day trip it worked out at a far more reasonable £84 for the two of us. Having paid I was then warned that the Similians were far busier than the Surins and how true it turned out to be. it's a similar distance off shore, takes over an hour in the high powered speed boats but because it's easier to get to from the popular tourist resorts the number of boats arriving was horrendous.
there's no doubt the islands are beautiful. The beaches a stunning white sand but you can't really appreciate them in the chaos of up to a dozen boats reversing in side by side to disgorge their passengers.
Sicilian Islands, Andaman Sea
It gets far worse than the image shown in this picture!
The snorkelling was equally awful ! The chosen spots were bereft of any potential hiding places for fish and the water too deep for decent views anyway. With half a dozen boats moored near to each other there were 150-200 swimmers in the vicinity at once! No wonder there was little to see.
Hugely disappointed we returned to one of the island camp sites for the buffet lunch, again the food was not anything to recommend and was taken sat where ever you could find a few feet of spare space. I went off to the loo and came back to see Claire had got the iPad out to take some shots.
I couldn't believe what she was looking at !
There among hundreds of people and behaving like a feral pigeon in Trafalgar Square was this absolute stunner !
Nicobar Pigeon
How I wished I had taken a decent camera although fair do's the iPad takes some great snaps and many of the scenic shots I have posted were taken using it .
Ah well, a record of sorts of the nearest living relative of the Dodo!
The Nicobar Pigeon was the only bright moment of an otherwise really bad day. Our troubles were compounded when someone stood on Claire's recently purchased dive mask and shattered the glass. £50 down the tubes the trip was no longer much of a bargain.
Ah well, these things happen.
For the next couple of days I decided to take leisurely breakfasts and try my luck down at the river inlet when the tide was more suitable.
There were a few boats moored in the inland lagoon formed by the river and these attracted resting Pacific Swallow now and again.
Pacific Swallow   Thailand
The Common Sandpiper seemed generally more confiding than the Lesser Sand Plover
Common Sandpiper   Thailand
which was in turn was positively friendly compared to the Slaty-breasted Rail which hurried off the minute I arrived.
Slaty-breasted Rail  Thailand
Still, if there's one thing that makes a bird come out of it's shell, it's food !
The sight of a Crab lunch had the Lesser Sand Plover dashing over towards me and I was soon getting my favourite shots of the whole trip.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
The poor Crab is hopelessly under equipped to fend off an attacker this size but it bravely puts on a show.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
The Plover grabs the  main pincers first to disarm the crab...literally.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
but the Crab is still defiant.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
There's only one direction this fight can take.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
Once all the legs are gone it's ready for eating.
Lesser Sand Plover   Thailand
What a terrible death to endure. It made interesting if gruesome watching and recording.
Pleased I had something worthwhile I headed back to the hotel but not before a German passer-by stopped me and told me of an allegedly good spot for birding further up the coast. I decided it was probably too far.
That evening I took another outing adding a White-throated Kingfisher to my photo haul.
White Throated Kingfisher
and resigned my self to spend my last full day by the pool with another book.
it started out that way, but first a quick trip across the road to photograph what I think are Germain's Swiftlet.
Germain's Swiftlet   Thailand
The German guy was there again and once again he stressed that I should go to the place he had recommended.
I went back to the hotel and told Claire I had decided to go out for the day. I could read a book at home but it's 7800 miles to Thailand. I should use the opportunity to go and see for myself.
Was it worth it ? We'll see !

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Koh Phra Thong.... chill out !

With the birding difficult much of my time was spent simply chilling out. Around the grounds of our resort there were countless Lizzards which in turn hunted countless crabs.
Occasionally something else took my attention, like this huge Grasshopper we found in our room one day.
or the Geckos lying in wait inside the lampshades
Geckobut most of the time I was now actually spending reading, including a book called "Out of the Blue" a personal account by someone caught up in the 2004 Tsunami when it struck Kho Phra Thong. It made for very interesting reading as the places mentioned were so very real having seen the spots mentioned for myself. Over 100 islanders and a dozen or so visitors were killed, the majority of the population later moved off the island with numbers dropping from 1400 down to around 400. It has taken until now for developers to show much interest in building for tourism again,probably the only benefit in an otherwise terrible tragedy.
One of the places we did visit though was the deserted village.
Unwanted rebuild Koh Phra Thong
This brand new village was constructed with funds raised by the international appeal made by the Lions Club. It was intended to replace homes flattened by the giant wave but now, several years since completion, it remains virtually empty. Of 115 homes built around 10 are occupied,and then only the ones around the village edge where owners can let their chickens,ducks and geese forage in the surrounding bushland.The new school that was built closed as it only had 4 pupils.
I am afraid it's another example of well intentioned but ill spent money, they didn't think to ask the locals what was needed but presumed to think they knew.What a shocking waste but it's not the first time it's happened and it won't be the last.It makes you think before donating sometimes which is a shame.
Ah well, back to my trip. 
And the now almost ceased birding!
It wasn't that there were no birds, here's a copy of the previously mentioned list and there are some cracking birds on it.
Kho Phra Thong  bird list
Kho Phra Thong  bird list
Kho Phra Thong  bird list
The biggest problem is getting transport around the island and possibly, snakes ! One of our resorts staff was travelling as a passenger sat on top of a heap of bamboo which had been loaded in the usual precarious manner on the motorbike sidecar when suddenly it came across a King Cobra sunning itself in the middle of the track. Taken by surprise it attacked the bike but fortunately they managed to steer around it with no harm done to either snake or passenger. I myself saw three snakes around the resort, I wasn't able to get a photograph, they were too quick to disappear, so whether they are poisonous or not I wouldn't know but it shows, caution is required before walking in to long grass etc !
The one thing the island does benefit from is the fabulous deserted beach where some of the best sunsets I have ever witnessed happened night after night.
What a glorious way to end the day, an ice cold Chang beer in the best beach bar I have ever been to, purely for it's isolation and simplicity.

Tawan Bar  Kho Phra Thong

This is an island Paradise
Sunset from Kho Phra Thong
Simply beautiful
Sunset from Kho Phra Thong
The only decisions you have to make each day are stay awake or go back to sleep.
Sunset from Kho Phra Thong
Take a walk or lay on a beach mat.
Sunset from Kho Phra Thong
and wonder what you'll have for dinner !
Sunset from Kho Phra Thong
We all have a different interpretation of Paradise, for some it might be a 5 star hotel but for me it's being at one with your natural surrounds which doesn't include too many people!
However, people are what made this holiday. The communal spirit , the warm welcome, the superb staff, the laughing and joking. Fantastic.
Trying to run a place here is a bit of a logistical nightmare. No electricity, everything has to be carefully thought out,planning food and drinks needed etc but Karen Spackman who runs the resort does a great job.
Most people stay only a few nights, I would recommend a minimum 7 as the cost of getting on to the island is not inconsiderable if you travel privately and without sharing. You have to accept that the accommodation is, different !
A typical bedroom inside the hut.
Phrathong Nature Resort
and the bathroom, complete with hand held shower and manual flush loo!
Phrathong Nature Resort
Towards the end of our stay we both longed for a fresh water shower, the rest we could put up with although flushing the loo by emptying a bowl of water from a great hight was a bit hit and miss too.
After 14 nights we were ready to move on, the bit of luxury that I had promised Claire beckoned.
Blue Lagoon Khao Lak
It does you good to re-evaluate the things we take for granted !
Blue Lagoon Khao Lak
We moved on to Khao Lak, somewhere considered one of the nicer tourist resorts in Southern Thailand but boy did we miss our island paradise for the rest of the holiday.