January 11th flight to Bangkok from Heathrow terminal 4 at 2145hrs with BA for £495, direct (11.5hrs) inclusive of taxes and booked through ‘Travelbag’
January 16th Bangkok - Pnom Penh on Air Asia FD3612 for TB999, 0700hrs departure arriving at 0810hrs, pre booked over the internet. Added to this were surcharges for fuel and security, booking fee and departure tax bringing the total to 2149Baht.
Thailand: UK citizens can obtain a free 30 day visa on arrival in Bangkok or 60 days can be obtained by applying to the Thai embassy in advance.
Cambodia: Visa on arrival ($20 for 30 days) is possible by air in to Phnom Penh. This process was very efficient in contrast to the reports I’ve heard of the visa on arrival system at the land crossing points. You simply fill in a visa application on the plane and supply one photo, which I didn’t have, no problem though all I did was pay a $1 fee / fine!
Khok Kham is a well known area of saltpans near the town of Samut Sakhon made famous by the discovery of regular wintering Spoon-billed Sandpipers. I met up with my good mate Simon Buckell for the first few days and we did this and the following site together. I’d like to thank Simon for making this part of my trip so easy. Over several years Simon has got to know Mr Tii, a local birder who lives and works at Khok Kham and whose knowledge is invaluable. Simon had organised everything including staying at Mt Tii’s house, at times it was like being on a ‘Birdquest’ tour (not that I have ever been on one!) as I was driven around and shown my target birds. All I had to do was turn up, tick the birds and drink beer, cheers Simon!
Target species: the endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, I had missed this bird by only one day in April 2002 after there had been up to five present since November! Asiatic Dowitcher and Nordman’s Greenshank are often present but both these species are found more regularly at the following site.
Birds seen: One Nordman’s turned up quite late in the evening and gave excellent though brief views. There is a small area of shoreline and mangrove which is viewable from a large concreted area and here is a great place to see waders as the light is behind you, the birds are fairly close as waders go. A lot of birds seem to use this spot as a brief staging post as they go off to roost. There had been no ‘Spooners’ recorded at this site since 4th December and so we didn’t really expect to see one- and we didn’t! No Asiatic Dowitcher either but plenty of other stuff to keep the wader enthusiast occupied.
Ban Pak Thale (pronounced Tally) another extensive area of saltpans near the town of Phetchaburi and part of the same large inlet as the above site but an hour or so further South by car. Target species as well as Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the other usual waders this site provides the best opportunity in central Thailand for Nordman’s Greenshank and Asiatic Dowitcher. Simon had sorted out a car and arranged for Mt Tii to accompany us to the site which was a great advantage, the site is huge. Mr Tii knew exactly where to go and within half an hour we had located three Spoon-billed Sandpipers which we watched for a couple of hours down to c40m as they displayed there ‘sewing machine ‘ like feeding action. Once you have your eye in, this feeding action is enough to give the birds away even when their heads are down.
Birds seen: As mentioned above we saw three ‘Spooners’ but Mt Tii went for a walk (‘I go to survey’ were his words I think) and reported that there were eight on site in total. No other real birds of note but as above, this is a good site for the general wader enthusiast and with luck you can get very good views. Note: Mr Tii does not offer accommodation, this was only available thanks to his friendship with Simon and he does not normally accompany birders to Ban Pak Thale either but if you meet him it would be worth asking him if he could go with you. He would have to take time off work so some compensation would have to be agreed if you were lucky enough to secure his services, he is too polite to ask for money so you’ll probably have to take the initiative.
Health note: In some areas visited there is known resistance to Malarial prophylaxis. Larium is recommended for general use in addition to carrying a combination therapy of Larium and Artemesine to be used in the event of an infection. Thanks to Joe Walston at WCS in Phnom Penh for advice on this issue.
Note also that Prear Vihear province is still a very dangerous area with regard to unexploded ordnance left over from the war so during any toilet stops do not venture off the road however tempting the forest looks! The only upside to this is that the locals dare not venture in to the forest so there is plenty of it left!
I met up with Tom Grey who is studying the Bengal Floricans at Kompong Thom to do the first site and was grateful to be able to leave most (all) of the arrangements to him and I thank him for both that and his excellent company. I had been in Cambodia before and seen the Mekong Wagtail so that site was omitted from my own trip though the other guys did it. Also joining Tom and I in Phnom Penh for the Cardomom’s were Nick Aspey, Tom’s research assistant and all round naturalist and experienced Belgian birders (or are they really French?) Bram de Muellemeester and Edward Verkreuse. British ‘Mega’ lister Jon Hornbuckle joined us later for Thmat Boey.
Phnom Aural in the Cardomom mountain range near the village of Aural.
Target species: two endemics, Cambodian Laughingthrush and Chestnut-headed Partridge as well as endemic races of White-tailed Robin cambodianum, Blue-winged Minla rufodorsalis and an ‘unresolved form’ of Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, (Colin Poole OBC bulletin number 30). Also said to be common here are Blue Pitta and Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo. Bay Owl was also seen and photographed here by James Eaton and Rob Hutchinson near to camp 2 in 2005. A two day trek is needed to get to the altitude (c1100m) for the Laughingthrush, logistics below. It would be possible to get to camp 2 in one day but it would be a Herculean task for the porters and I’m not sure you could persuade them to do it.
Getting there: Share taxi from Phnom Penh to Kantourt then hire taxi or moto taxi to Aural village. Next day Aural village to camp one on Phonm Aural (c530m) done in three hours walking with a few rest stops for the porters. Next day camp one to camp two c1100m, done in four hours of walking, two nights here with one full day birding around and above camp two. On the mountain each guide/porter is paid $6 per day including food which should be brought in from Phnom Penh. Cost per person (divided by five people) was $60 all inclusive.
On the journey in to Aural village our driver in negotiating a felled tree, failed to see the remaining small stump in the middle of the sandy track. The result was that our 4WD was grounded with the stump stuck between the front wheels and a protective plate beneath the engine compartment and we could not clear it by driving back or forward. It took 30 minutes for him to position and re-position a jack under the vehicle. Once lifted, he would then push the vehicle forward off the jack, each time edging the vehicle slightly more over the stump and finally freedom.
We were only about the fifth group of westerners to undertake this trek and as such any one else thinking of doing it should expect a little hardship. On the first night I slept on a table on a roll mat under a mosquito net outside a house in the village and the hardness of the table combined with the dogs and chickens which seemed to be endlessly squabbling beneath my table (bed) ensured that I got no sleep whatsoever. Apart from this minor discomfort the rest of the trip was well planned, our porters arrived next morning and we set off behind an Ox cart carrying our supplies and three hapless chickens which were to provide food during our stay. These chickens were notable for apparently having no breast meat, all we found in our pot were bones and we did suspect that the porters were selecting the best bits for themselves in our absence as they were also cooking for us.
After about an hour and a half walking in the blazing sun on a sandy track we got to the foot of the mountain and began the first leg of our ascent. The next three nights were spent in hammocks provided by T.G courtesy of the W.C.S. The hammocks came with integrated mosquito nets and whilst a little claustrophobic, they were perfect for the job.
I did have my doubts over the suitability of one of the porters, a very effeminate teenager but he earned our utmost respect for his toughness. We did the climb in expensive boots and carried only ourselves but he and the other porters did it with the addition of a 30kg bag and barefoot in both directions! After arrival at camp (appropriate word!) this particular guy would produce a small vanity case and proceed to pluck and shape his eyebrows in a mirror before disappearing to the river to wash. He would then return with his face covered in the whitening powder that seems to be so popular in Asia and sit in his hammock looking pristine and ready for a night on the town while we were all festering and covered in the days grime.
N.B the walking here can be quite tough, it’s hot and fairly steep in places and there are no trails though the forest is quite open. You would also struggle without an interpreter, we were lucky in that TG had become fairly proficient in Khmer and this proved invaluable.
Birds seen: Cambodian Laughingthrush is pretty common and very vocal, we had no trouble in seeing at least two parties comprising 2-8 birds within metres of camp two and we heard them regularly. We had several Blue Pitta’s calling around camp and I personally managed very good views of one of them (thanks Bram) despite spectacularly not being able to see one bird previously which was ‘right in the open on the leaf litter!!!’, It turned out that I was looking far too close to where the bird actually was.
We neither saw nor heard either the Partridge or the Ground Cuckoo and the nature of the forest here makes it very difficult to see the smaller passerines which are usually in the canopy, meaning that we also failed to see the Flowerpecker or the Minla but we did get brief views of the White-tailed Robin. Bram lead efforts on two nights to try to see a calling Bay Owl, the bird called all night both nights but as we headed in to the trailess forest in pitch black, the bird seemed to get no closer as we rose and dropped over a couple of ridges. We had to periodically hang our head torches on trees and bushes to give us an idea of the way back to camp but each time we dropped over a ridge we would lose sight of the last light.
The site was notable for the number of Ticks that we all got on us, double figures on both legs for all. Even on our return to Phnom Penh I sat eating Pizza and found one on the back of my knee. The area is so rarely visited even by locals, that mammals are numerous, particularly wild Pigs whose wallows were regularly found and this is the presumed reason for the number of Ticks present. We also came across a pile of crap which was confidently identified by one of our porters as that of Sunbear.
Target species: the endangered Giant Ibis, White-shouldered Ibis and the possibility of Greater Adjutant. Pale-capped Pigeon is said to be present in stands of flowering bamboo (Tom Clements, Pete Davidson, Tan Setha, Birding Asia number 4).
Getting there: To get to this site we hired a taxi to take us to Tbeng Meanchea ($60) in Prear Vihear province where we had to report to the Wildlife Conservation Service office to arrange guides and an interpreter. From here we had to take another vehicle to the village of Thmatboey ($35) where there is a house set up within the village for birders which has mattresses and mosquito nets and where a couple of local ladies cook for you. Guides, of which for some reason (W.C.S policy) you are given two, are paid $5 per day divisible by the number in the party and the English speaking guide gets $13 per day divisible by the number in the party, food costs $5 each per day.
Birds seen: The day begins pre dawn with the Ladies providing a simple noodle breakfast then it’s off in darkness to the open woodland that the Ibis’s call home.
On our first morning we managed flush views of three White-shouldered Ibis and two Giant Ibis, apart from juvenile W.s Ibis on the nest, this was our only sighting of the Ibis’s in the time we were here. The strategy is to check out various waterholes known locally as tropeangs until you get lucky (the previous group missed them) and find the birds. If you are unlucky this can lead to a long hot day in the sun covering a lot of ground between tropeangs. The problem is approaching the tropeangs undetected we never managed it and never saw any birds properly on the ground. The W.s Ibis flew through the trees having spotted us at the tropeang and they briefly alighted in trees but they were off again before we could get anywhere near them.
Other birds seen here include Lesser Adjutant, Rufous winged Buzzard and Black-headed Woodpecker the latter two being common, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chinese Francolin, and the declining Alexandrine Parakeet.
N.B There is a fee of $30 per person payable upon successfully seeing the Giant Ibis. This money goes in to a fund which is paid out annually on the condition that no Ibis’s have been proven to have been hunted. This money has allowed the village which is fairly remote and cut off in the rains, to sink several new wells providing a year round water supply.
An enjoyable diversion for those with half a day or so to spare in Phnom Penh between birding is a massage at the local blind school ($5), a very worthwhile enterprise which allows blind people to earn a living. Flyers for the school are posted in most guesthouses. My masseuse was called Sophea and she asked me how I wanted my massage, hard, medium or soft, I went for the top setting, big mistake! This tiny girl of about 40kgs and less than 5 feet in height soon had me whimpering like a child, she had the grip of a Grizzly Bear! I had to turn her down to her minimum setting after less than two minutes to enjoy the treat.
Anyone wanting to do the Cambodian part of this trip should contact – Wildlife Conservation Society PO Box 1620 Phnom Penh Cambodia Tel / fax +855 – (0)23-217205 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
List of birds seen at all sites
Note that this is not an exhaustive list of all common birds seen.
Chinese Francolin another catch up tick for me, several birds heard and one flushed from c10m high in a tree
Lesser Yellownape a couple seen near Aural Village.
Black-headed Woodpecker common at Tmatboey.
Common Flameback one seen near Aural Village
Grey-headed Woodpecker one seen near Aural village was a new bird for me.
Great Slaty Woodpecker heard at Tmatboey
Wreathed Hornbill Regularly glimpsed flying over the treetops at camp 2 at Aural.
Black-capped Kingfisher At least four birds seen well in mangroves at Khok Kham on the 13th Jan.
Alexandrine Parakeet A party of three seen at Tmatboey.
Bay owl heard on both nights at camp 2 at Mt Aural but we were unable to find the bird which frustratingly called all night long. No trails on the mountain and the terrain made this bird very difficult to locate. We would climb a ridge expecting to be almost on top of the bird but it never seemed to get any closer despite the fact that it appeared to be unmoving from it’s location.
Black-tailed Godwit c6 seen at Khok Kham on the 13th Jan
Nordman’s Greenshank One seen well at Khok Kham 14th Jan. I’m sure most birders prior to seeing this species wonder how easy the identification will be – easy! The shape of this bird cannot be compared to a Common Greenshank in any way in fact Simon correctly likened it to a giant Terek, if you saw one in silhouette that’s exactly what it would look like.
Terek Sandpiper one seen at close range at Khok Kam on the 13th Jan.
Spoonbilled Sandpiper 3 seen at Ban Pak Thale with 5 others reported on site.
Red-necked Stint common at Khok Kham and Ban Pak Thale.
Long-toed Stint several seen at both Khok Kham and Ban Pak Thale
Broad-billed Sandpiper a few seen at Khok Kham and Ban Pak Thale
Great Knot a few seen at Khok Kham and Ban Pak Thale
Kentish Plover a few seen at Khok Kham and Ban Pak Thale
Lesser Sandplover common at Khok Kham and Ban Pak Thale
Black-shouldered Kite one seen perched in bushes and hunting at Khok Kham on 15th Jan.
Collared Falconet two seen near Aural village on 17th Jan.
Grey Heron one at Khok Kham on the 13th Jan
Purple Heron one at Khok Kham on the 13th Jan
White-shouldered Ibis three adult birds flushed from a tropeang landed briefly in tress but we were unable to get anywhere near them for better views. An almost full grown bird on a nest was the only other view we got of the species.
Giant Ibis again flush views were all we had of two adult birds as they lifted off from a tropeang and this was the only sighting we had. As noted previously, the problem is approaching the tropeangs undetected but others have been lucky in chancing upon birds perched in trees.
Lesser Adjutant a couple seen at Tmatboey
Blue Pitta common by voice around camp 2 at Aural with two seen, only one by me 20th Jan and finally ticked after being missed at Khao Yai. This species is very variable on the underpart colouration and the bird I saw was almost completely blue with only very faint white lines. When it sat briefly in full sunlight, the combination of the yellow eyebrow and dark underparts made it look almost like a Banded Pitta.
Silver-breasted Broadbill a couple seen near camp 2 at Mt Aural.
Red-billed Blue Magpie a couple of singles and one flock comprising c10 birds at Tmatboey
White-tailed Robin endemic race cambodianum one seen briefly near camp 2 at Aural
Hill Mynah common around Aural village.
Cambodian Laughingthrush endemic and known only from the Cardomom mountain range where it was found to be common around camp 2 at Mt Aural with two or three parties seen.