I made a three day visit to the Kaeng Krachan national park from my temporary base in Hua Hin. This was part of a recent series of short visits to birding areas whilst in Thailand on a generally non-birding holiday (see my previous trip reports for Doi Inthanon, Doi Chiang Dao and Doi Angkhang).
As usual I researched the trip on the Internet. Kaeng Krachan (KK) seems to be somewhat less visited by birders than other sites in the north or south of Thailand, and accordingly there were fewer trip reports available on the web.
2) Getting there, Transport and Accommodation
a) Hua Hin to Kaeng Krachan park HQ
I rented a 125cc motorcycle in Hua Hin for 130 baht per day. From Hua Hin to the park headquarters is a relatively straightforward journey of about 70km, although a road map was useful especially nearer Kaeng Krachan where the road signs are mostly in Thai only. From Hua Hin, take route 3218 inland, signposted to the Pala-u waterfall, as far as the village of Nong Phlap where there is a crossroads. Turn right (north) along route 3301. After 20km or so this road meets route 3410 at a T junction. Turn right and then almost immediately left onto another road, signposted to Kaeng Krachan national park. Again this road ends at a junction. The national park is signposted to the left, but you will need to go to the park HQ first to organise permits for visiting the park, so turn right here. This road arrives at a T junction where all the signs are in Thai. Turn left here, and continue through the village of Kaeng Krachan. At the end of the village the Kaeng Krachan dam can be seen ahead of you. Turn left just before the checkpoint gate and follow the road around the south shore of the lake, and after 5km or so you will reach the park HQ. Permits are arranged in the visitor centre on the right hand side of the road.
b) Kaeng Krachan park headquarters and visitor centre
This is set in a peaceful spot on the shores of the lake. Mr Thanai at the visitor centre speaks good English and was very happy to help. Anyone visiting or intending to visit can call him on 01 984 5031 (from within Thailand). Mr Thanai had some bad news for me - MOTORCYCLES ARE NOT PERMITTED IN THE KAENG KRACHAN NATIONAL PARK. This was a bit of a blow as I was relying on my bike to get me to various birding hotspots along the 40km long jeep track within the park. So my plan of staying in a guesthouse outside the park and biking in each day had to be abandoned.
My only option was therefore to camp within the park, which had the advantage that I only had to pay the 200 baht park entrance fee once. The fee for camping at the Ban Krang campsite within the park is 30 baht per person per night. Tents are available to rent from the visitor centre (passport required as deposit), for 120 baht per night for a 2-man tent. Bedding is also available for a small extra charge.
Other accommodation options include bungalows near the park HQ, which are quite expensive, or several guesthouses between the park HQ and Kaeng Krachan village charging (according to Mr Thanai) around 500 baht per night. Remember when staying outside the park gates, you will have to purchase a 200 baht permit for every day you intend to enter the park.
c) Getting to the park gates from the park headquarters
On the first night I pitched my tent in the grounds of the park HQ on the shores of the lake, as there was insufficient time to get into the park that day. The next morning I set off at 5am for the park gates on my motorbike. The entrance to the park is not especially easy to find so I provide detailed directions below. All distances quoted are approximate. From the visitor centre, turn right and continue to follow the shore of the lake (heading away from the dam). After 3km, in a small village, take a left turn. Follow this road for 5km, where it ends at a T junction in another village. Opposite the end of the road is a school with a sign in English. Turn right at this junction. After a few km another road joins from the left, but continue straight ahead. Shortly after this intersection the road becomes a rough track for 400 metres or so. When you meet the surfaced road again, continue straight ahead ignoring the turning to the right. After another 3km or so, you arrive at the park gates.
Here I had to leave my motorbike, and wait at the gates in the hope that I could hitch a ride up to the Ban Krang campsite on a passing pick-up. However because it was a Monday morning I was out of luck, and in two hours waiting no vehicles came by. Fully aware that I was eating into valuable early-morning birding time, I eventually persuaded one of the guards to drive me the 15km to Ban Krang in his pick-up for 400 baht (he wasn't bothered about doing it for anything less even though all the guards seem to do all day is sit around doing absolutely nothing). Of course by far the best way of getting up the mountain and getting around within the park is by hired car - although why cars are allowed and motorbikes are not allowed seems strange to me. Another option would be to charter a taxi from the park HQ. Mr Thanai will gladly arrange this but it was very expensive, with prices starting at 1200 baht for a return trip to the top of Panoenthung mountain at Km30. Only if travelling in a group would this be cost-effective.
d) Inside the park
The road from the park gates to Ban Krang is surfaced for the first 10km, then becomes an unmade track. Ban Krang is at Km15 and would be easily reachable in an ordinary saloon car. Beyond here, between Km16 and 18, there are three streams to cross which may be a little deep, in the wet season at least, for an ordinary car. After Km18 the track starts to climb, steeply in places - again in the wet season you would probably need a 4WD for this section. I didn't go further than the viewpoint at Panoenthung substation at Km31, so cannot comment on the road beyond here.
Beyond Ban Krang the road is single track and cars can only ascend or descend the mountain at certain times, with a one hour "buffer zone" between up and down times. This might mean a wait of an hour or two at Ban Krang or Panoenthung. When I was there you could ascend from Ban Krang to Panoenthung between 5 and 8am, but could not come back down from Panoenthung towards Ban Krang until 9am. The park HQ can provide the latest information as these times may change.
3) Trail maps
Once within the park, birding is very straightforward as the main areas are all along the jeep track up the mountain.
Key landmarks between the park gates and the Panoenthung viewpoint are as follows
Km 0 - Park Gates
Km10 - Surfaced road becomes rough track and birding improves markedly.
Km12 to 15 - Good area for birding.
Km15 - Ban Krang substation and campsite.
Km15 to18 - Good birding area. From Km16 to 18 the track passes through mature primary forest and crosses three small rivers.
Km18 to 24 - The track climbs through mainly secondary forest and scrub.
Km24 to 27 - Another good birding area, the start of which is indicated by a sign depicting a monkey.
Km27 - A small parking area next to a sign depicting a bird. A track leads downhill from here and is a good place to look for Ratchet-tailed Treepie.
Km27 to 30 - Good birding and well worth covering on foot.
Km30 - Panoenthung Substation and campsite (campsite was closed on my visit).
Km31 - Viewpoint, good birding here also.
4) Birding at Kaeng Krachan
Kaeng Krachan is far wilder and more unspoilt than any of the other national parks I have visited so far in Thailand. Due to its geographical location in southern central Thailand, its avifauna comprises both northern and southern Thai birds, meaning a high species total in the park of over 400 species.
I was unlucky with the weather during my short visit - more or less the whole first day was a washout, which meant that I only had one full day and one early morning to enjoy the park's birds. Unfortunately I did not manage to connect with the park's main speciality, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, and overall I suspect that birding was much tougher at this time of year than it is in winter, but nonetheless I did manage to see some interesting species.
A trip list of 101 included some lowland and farmland species seen en route from the park HQ to the park gates. This compares to totals of 109 species at Doi Chiang Dao, 100 at Doi Inthanon and 81 at Doi Angkhang, but I had much more time at each of those places. The overall feeling was that KK was incredibly rich in birdlife, and I was only scratching the surface in my short visit.
Perhaps most notable of all was the large number of mammals seen and heard. Among these were good views of 3 different species of primates, as well as briefly seeing a wild Asian Elephant, plus many smaller mammals. Other birders have reported seeing Leopard and Panther here. Walking alone in the park, I felt very alone in the wilderness and felt for the first time in Thailand the power of nature ... I was more than a little nervous at times that I may encounter a tiger or rampaging elephant! Kaeng Krachan feels very remote and wild at times and this is why it was overall a more rewarding experience for me than the northern Thai sites.
Most birders seem to concentrate their efforts between Km15 to 18 and Km 26 to 31. On the first day I walked Km15 to 18 several times, but didn't see a great deal due to the rain. On the second morning I was lucky enough to be able to hitch a lift to the Km31 viewpoint at dawn with some Thai campers, and from there I walked back to the campsite at Km15. In the afternoon I birded Km15 to 18 again. The final morning I packed up my tent at first light and walked from Km15 as far as Km6 before a pick-up came by and I was able to hitch a lift the rest of the way back to the park gates.
My personal birding highlights were Bamboo Woodpecker, many Great Hornbills, Orange-breasted and Red-headed Trogons, a flock of Great eared and Large-tailed Nightjars at dusk at Ban Krang campsite, perched Mountain Hawk Eagle, Black-thighed and Collared Falconets, a superb Blue-winged Pitta showing daily on the lawn at Ban Krang campsite, Silver-breasted, Banded and Black-and-Red Broadbills, Crested Jay, Sultan Tit, Lesser Necklaced and Black-throated Laughingthrushes, White-hooded Babbler and a flock of Pin-tailed Parrotfinches.
Order as per Robson, including species seen between the park HQ and the park gates. Heard-only's omitted.
1. Barred Buttonquail
2. Red Junglefowl
3. Little Grebe - on lake just inside park gates
4. Bamboo Woodpecker - adult with fledged young at the start of the Km27 track
5. Greater Yellownape - common
6. Common Flameback - 1 at Km16, 2 at Km14
7. Greater Flameback - common and showed well
8. Blue-throated Barbet - 1 at Km29 but many heard
9. Moustached Barbet - 1 at Km31 viewpoint showed well
10. Great Hornbill - groups seen in various places between Km28 and Km11
11. Oriental Pied Hornbill - common. Disappointingly only 2 Hornbill species seen.
12. Indian Roller
13. Dollarbird - 2 family groups at Km16 and Km14
14. Orange-breasted Trogon - pair at Km17
15. Red-headed Trogon - one at Km25
16. White-throated Kingfisher
17. Green-billed Malkoha - disappointingly the only Malkoha species seen.
18. Greater Coucal
19. Blue-bearded Bee-eater - omnipresent around large bee nests at Km16 and several seen elsewhere
20. Vernal Hanging Parrot - fairly common
21. Grey-rumped Treeswift - 3+ at Km16
22. Brown-backed Needletail - 1 at Km16
23. Palm Swift
24. House Swift
25. Great Eared Nightjar - 5+ at Ban Krang campsite at dusk
26. Large-tailed Nightjar - 5+ in flock with above
27. Mountain Imperial Pigeon - 2 at Km31
28. Spotted Dove
29. Emerald Dove - common
30. White-breasted Waterhen - 1 on pool at Km13
31. Red-wattled Lapwing
32. Crested Serpent Eagle - several
33. Mountain Hawk Eagle - 1 perched at close range at Km28
34. Collared Falconet - singles at Km14 and Km12
35. Black-thighed Falconet - pair pointed out by the rangers at Km16
36. Little Egret
37. Cattle Egret
38. Blue-winged Pitta - one showed superbly every day on the lawn of Ban Krang campsite
39. Silver-breasted Broadbill - 3 pairs between Km15 and Km18
40. Black-and-Red Broadbill - 1 at Ban Krang campsite and 1 at Km29
41. Banded Broadbill - near nest at Km16
42. Blue-winged Leafbird
43. Common Iora
44. Great Iora
45. Asian Fairy Bluebird - 2 at Km13
46. Crested Jay - 1 at Km14
47. Common Green Magpie - 1 at Km25
48. Racket-tailed Treepie - several around park gates
49. Large-billed Crow
50. Scarlet Minivet
51. Bronzed Drongo
52. Spangled Drongo - common around Km15
53. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo - common everywhere including a tame hand-reared bird around Ban Krang
54. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
55. Pied Fantail - lower levels
56. White-throated Fantail
57. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher
58. Black-naped Monarch
59. Oriental Magpie Robin
60. White-rumped Shama
61. Common Myna
62. White-vented Myna
63. Hill Myna - flock of 6 at Km10
64. Vinous-breasted Starling - 1 by roadside near park HQ
65. Black-collared Starling - 1 on lakeshore at park HQ
66. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
67. Sultan Tit - pair at Km16
68. Oriental White-eye
69. Black-headed Bulbul
70. Black-crested Bulbul
71. Stripe-throated Bulbul
72. Flavescent Bulbul
73. Streak-eared Bulbul
74. Ashy Bulbul - several seen between Km31 and Km24
75. Ochraceous Bulbul - common
76. Grey-eyed Bulbul - 1 at Km24
77. Plain Prinia
78. Rufescent Prinia
79. Common Tailorbird
80. Dark-necked Tailorbird
81. Yellow-bellied Warbler - 1 at Km27
82. Lesser necklaced Laughingthrush - single at Km10
83. Black-throated Laughingthrush - single at Km29
84. Buff-breasted Babbler - several
85. Puff-throated Babbler - common
86. White-browed Scimitar-babbler - 2 at Km28
87. Rufous-fronted Babbler - several
88. Grey-throated Babbler - 2 at Km28
89. Striped Tit-babbler - common
90. White-hooded Babbler - 1 at Km30
91. Indochinese Bushlark
92. Olive-backed Sunbird
93. Crimson Sunbird - eclipse male at Km9
94. Black-throated Sunbird
95. Streaked Spiderhunter
96. Grey-breasted Spiderhunter - 1 at Km24
97. Paddyfield Pipit
98. Tree Sparrow
99. Scaly-breasted Munia
100. White-rumped Munia
101. Pin-tailed Parrotfinch - flock of 3+ including 1 male at Km30
Also of note, 2 Slaty-backed Forktails and 5+ White-crested Laughingthrushes on a non-birding visit to Pala-u waterfall, in the south of Kaeng Krachan national park, a few days prior to this trip.
Dominic Le Croissette, 26th June 2006