Khao Soi Dao (meaning mountain touching the stars) is a mountain range in eastern Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. The two main peaks are Khao Soi Dao Neua (northern) and Khao Soi Dao Dtai (southern), the latter rising to the respectable height of 1,633m. Khao Soi Dao is the westernmost extent of the Cardamom or Elephant Mountains in southwestern Cambodia. Chestnut-headed Partridge is only found in these mountains. Some split the Thai race, which according to the book looks quite different, as Siamese Partridge, a Thai endemic.
Khao Soi Dao includes at least two protected areas. At the southern end of the range is Khao Kitchakut National Park, centering Khao Bprabat (the Buddha’s Footprint), a religious site with a very healthy number of visitors from all around the country (and perhaps beyond). Most of the rest of the mountain range is covered by Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary.
I made five weekend trips up Khao Soi Dao Dtai from Bangkok in 2004 and 2005, two in July 2004, one each in November and December 2004, and one in March 2005.
I am not aware of a clear trail up Khao Soi Dao Dtai – the route I took involves some fairly difficult off-trail hiking, so I am starting with a section on risks. I’m aware of the following main ones:
1. Accidents because of hiking off-trail in steep terrain.
2. Getting lost. Try to find a guide if you have any doubts. I navigated using natural and man-made features, not a map. Some of these features may change in the next few years. Phil Round feels it is highly unlikely anyone will be able to find their way up the mountain using the present directions!
3. Fauna. On my final hike out, I nearly ran into a baseball-sized swarm of bees while crossing the cardamom fields. The large black-and-yellow web spiders common in the rest of Thailand are also abundant here. I once found a massive, fluorescent orange centipede, which must have been poisonous. Snake bites must also be a possibility. The mammal book I have indicates that large mammals such as elephant, gaur, leopard and even tiger are present on the mountain, although I have heard the latter has not been sighted here for some time and may be extinct.
Common, minor annoyances include leeches (expect over 50 in a weekend during the wet season), ticks and mosquitos (both mostly dry season) and numerous spiny plants.
You will have to carry your own camping gear up the mountain, as well as food and water. Water is important since, after a certain point, the route I took follows a ridgetop. A machete is helpful, and some form of communication is a good safety precaution. However, mobile phone signal is patchy up the mountain. In the wet season, raingear is essential on the one hand, but mostly futile on the other! More importantly, bring lots of insect repellent – a good way to persuade leeches to detach.
There is a guest room at the Pheasant Breeding Centre. There is also a fairly fancy resort called Soi Dao Highland Golf Course. The turn-off (also left as you face north) is a few kilometres further north of the breeding centre turn-off.
How to get there
My route up Khao Soi Dao Dtai started at Pong Nam Ron captive breeding centre. Pong Nam Ron town is about 45km north of Chantaburi up route 317. At the northern end of town, there is a left turn (as you face north) with a wildlife sanctuary sign. A one-lane paved road leads about 3km from here to the pheasant breeding centre. If the rangers allow you to park, you could leave them a bottle of whisky and some chocolates (good communal gifts).
Note: another good place to visit at Khao Soi Dao is the main headquarters area near the northern peak. To reach this area, continue further north on route 317 and follow signs for Khao Soi Dao waterfall. This area gives you access to an extensive area of dry deciduous forest as well as a trail up to a series of beautiful waterfalls.
Route up the mountain
The pheasant breeding centre itself is quite an impressive place, with cages full of Green Peafowl, Great Argus, the local lewisi race Silver Pheasant, and an array of other birds from partridges to Hill Mynas and even an African Grey Parrot. The entrance road from route 317 ends at the headquarters, a few hundred metres after passing through a gate (manned during the off-hours). The as you look uphill, the office building is on your right, the guest house in front of you and slightly to the right, a partridge and pheasant incubation building to your left, and, just behind it, a small covered parking area with a trail leading off along a stream. Don’t follow that trail.
Instead, follow the path in front (downhill) of the incubation centre, traveling past the Hill Myna cage, round the back of some lewisi Silver Pheasant enclosures, and descending to cross a stream via a series of cobbled steps. After rising up the other side, bear left with a small house on your right, and the trail will lead you to a fence. One of the green panels opens, and you cross a field with noisy chicken and guineafowl towards an opening to the left. Pass through this second opening and immediately head right on the other side of the fence. Another door opens to reveal a small trail that crosses a small stream on a plank. After crossing the stream, you are now walking with an area of macaque cages on your left and join a dirt road with a Pileated Gibbon cage on the other side. Turn right, uphill on the road and follow it for a few hundred metres, passing some sambar deer enclosures on your right.
Birds (wild) around the headquarters area include Grey-eyed, Sooty-headed, Black-crested, Streak-eared and Stripe-throated Bulbuls, Lineated Barbet, Red-wattled Lapwing, Red-throated Flycatcher, Common Tailorbird, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Greater Coucal, Spotted Dove, Red Turtle-Dove Black-naped Oriole, White-rumped Munia, Indian Roller, Red-rumped and Barn Swallows and Ashy Woodswallow.
The road eventually passes through two gates in immediate succession, with a small building on your left. Shortly afterwards, a trail turns left off the road. Take this trail, but almost immediately turn right again on a trail into the forest (which runs the same direction as the dirt road you were just on). This trail starts off obscurely, but is fairly easy to follow once you are in the forest. You cross another stream and quickly join a sturdy-looking fence with concrete pillars, with you walking to its right. I wonder why this elaborate fence was built in the middle of the forest − or could the forest have grown back that quickly? Soon, the trail passes through a gap in the fence (a water pipe ran through this gap the times I went up the mountain) so you are now walking on the left-hand side. The trail runs along the fence and is easy to follow but there are numerous obstacles such as collapsed sections of the fence (a notable one passes over another muddy gully with spiny palms, where I once saw Hainan Blue-Flycatcher), some steep, slippery areas, low vegetation and fallen trees. After a few hundred metres, you pass through another gap to move to the right hand side of the fence, joining a more definite trail that meanders away from the fence, but is quite clear and easy to follow. After some way, several hundred metres, you pass through another gap to the left side of the fence, leave the fence altogether and travel down to cross a larger stream. This stream was full and very difficult to cross at the end of the wet season in November, but was bone dry by March. Hence all the effort the locals have gone into to develop a network of water pipes shipping water down from remote areas up the mountain – in the wet season you wonder why they have gone to such trouble, since all the streams lower down are overflowing.
This area mostly consists of dense secondary scrub with many spiny palms. Birdwatching is quite difficult. Judging mostly by voice, common birds include Ochraceous Bulbul (common throughout the forest here at all elevations), Striped Tit-babbler, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Scaly-breasted Partridge and White-crested Laughingthrush. On the December, I encountered a group of Long-tailed Broadbill right near the trail entrance on my way out during the December visit, at a low elevation of about 350m.
The trail passes the other side of the stream and continues gradually uphill for about a couple of kilometres to an area of cardamom fields. It is quite clear and easy to follow the whole way. I saw many, more common lowland birds along here, like Blue-winged Leafbird, Vernal Hanging-Parrot, White-rumped Shama, Black-naped Monarch, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Asian Fairy-bluebird as well as a number of migrants that are also present further up the mountain, and have heard Banded Broadbill and Orange-breasted Trogon. Both Blue-eared and, in particular, Moustached Barbets are common (judging by voice) at all elevations from this stream all the way up the mountain.
The trail emerges in an area of cardamom fields with a stream (the same one you crossed a while back) some way below you to your right. You need to cross the stream at the very opposite, far corner of the cardamom fields. Little Spiderhunter, Asian Barred-Owlet and, sometimes, a group of Everett’s White-eye is present in this area.
There is a water pipe running on the far side of the stream, but it doesn’t run immediately next to the stream so you might need to wander through some spiny trees in order to find it! This is where it gets a bit tricky and a machete might come in handy. On my last trip, in March 2005, someone had laid a new water pipe and had cleared some of the vegetation from around it, which was a big help. Once you find the water pipe, you need to follow it up stream (with the stream on your left hand side) for nearly a kilometre. I commonly flushed Emerald Dove from this area.
Before joining another stream that comes in from the right (you will hear it in wet season), you need to head directly uphill. This is the steepest part of the route and possibly dangerous – especially when slippery in the wet season. Make sure you are always grabbing hold of a secure plant that has adequate deep roots. Some way up this section, you may run into some white paint blazes that I made, unless they have completely worn off by then. After about 300 paces steep uphill (and approaching a 100m climb), you need to veer to the left and start following the contours, passing a creepy dry gully with palms on your right and coming around to cross a small, steep stream, probably the same one that joins the larger stream you walked along back down the slope. After crossing this stream, ascend briefly to the ridgetop the other side and head uphill through an area of large-leaved plants and tangled vines. After a few hundred metres, the ridgetop opens out, there is a large boulder and a tree with lots of carvings on it. I once saw Red-headed Trogon in this clearing and have also heard Banded Kingfisher here.
From the rock, turn left steeply downhill off the ridge to cross another stream, then ascend steeply to the ridge the other side. This ridge ascends gradually for some way. Some parts are narrow and easy to follow. Others are broader and may be possible to get lost in. I have climbed this ridge to about 1300m. There is a large, overhanging boulder at about 1200m. During four of my trips, I camped at 1050m, placing my tent in a hollow that had been rooted out by wild pigs. The remaining time I camped at 950m after seeing Chestnut-headed Partridge during the ascent, in the early afternoon, and was rewarded with great views of a group of four birds around the campsite the next morning.
The area is beautiful, undisturbed hill forest. Birdwatching can be fairly difficult, but it is still quite possible to see things. You will make a lot of noise walking in the dry leaves, but you can also hear the birds quite easily – groups of lewisi Silver Pheasant were quite conspicuous during my November and December trips, and picked up Blue-rumped Pitta this way in December.
Other interesting resident birds in this mid-mountain area include Mountain Fulvetta (seen once in a mixed flock), Indochinese Magpie (frequent), Streaked Wren-babbler (commonly seen in wet season around the tangles of fallen trees and around ridgetop boulders further up the mountain) and montane birds like White-tailed Warbler, White-throated Fantail and White-browed Shrike-babbler. One-time sightings included Besra and Wedge-tailed Pigeon (the latter in a low fruiting tree at about 900m during the March visit, with numerous Moustached Barbet), Blue Pitta (mostly heard but once seen) Hill Blue and Verditer Flycatchers and Black-throated Sunbird. Commoner residents include White-bellied Yuhina, Ashy, Spangled and Bronzed Drongos, Green-billed Malkoha, Blue Whistling-Thrush and Mountain Imperial Pigeon. You can hear Collared Owlet all day, and Brown Wood-Owl and Mountain Scops-Owl at night.
In winter, there are numerous migrants, the commonest including Inornate Warbler, Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Siberian Blue Robin, Pale-legged Leaf-warbler and Ashy/Swinhoe’s Minivets. I had two sightings of Orange-headed Thrush and once saw a large group of Eyebrowed Thrush, which the Robson guide does not indicate as present here. Golden-spectacled Warbler is also indicated as not present, and I saw several in November and December. Sulphur-breasted Warbler were common in mixed flocks during the November visit. I had one sighting of a female White-throated Rock-Thrush at 1050m in November 2004.
I’ve had a lot of fun looking for the specialities of Khao Soi Dao − a great chance to experience an unspoiled wilderness area and do some more adventurous backcountry hiking in Thailand.