August 28, 2020
THAILAND: LAND OF SMILES
By Dion Hobcroft
The question I am asked most often on a tour is, “What is your favorite country?” It is difficult to answer, as what makes it a favorite for me may not necessarily appeal to tour participants. I like Papua New Guinea because the great jungles make it such a challenge to see the birds, and the Melanesian culture is relatively intact. I love Bhutan for the rhododendron forests, Himalayan landscapes, and the wonderful people. Then there is Uganda, where you can be in mountain rainforest in the morning and in a classic East African savanna in the afternoon; sightings can range from gorilla to giraffe or chimpanzee to leopard in a few hours with some luck. In fact, the people I get to travel amongst and work with around the planet are an eternal highlight. Many are so kind, generous, uncomplicated, and smiling. Indonesia and the Philippines stand out in this regard. It is Thailand—Land of Smiles, though, that I generally settle on as my answer.
The people are wonderful—so polite and delightful. It is considered very bad manners to get into a dispute, argue, or even stand with your hands on your hips. The food is fantastic—stir-fries of fresh vegetables, chicken, and prawns with a superb variety of spices, tropical fruits, and an endless variety of recipes. Service delivery is fast and fresh. This is underscored even further in that we have two Thai chefs who accompany the tour and set up a bedazzling variety of food in situ while we explore tropical forests.
Birdlife is remarkably diverse. In the east there is an Indochinese diversity of birdlife. Silver Pheasant and Siamese Fireback, Moustached and Green-eared barbets, Limestone Wren-Babbler, and supreme skulkers like Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo and Eared Pitta keep us working hard for prized sightings. In the northwest there is a Himalayan injection of bird species. Sibias, minlas, mesias, shortwings, and cupwings keep our focus, while giant pine woodlands hide the wonderful Hume’s Pheasant and Giant Nuthatch. To the south, near the Isthmus of Kra, is the famous Kaeng Krachan National Park. It is the largest surviving forest in Southeast Asia, and it never disappoints. Great Hornbills, Sultan Tit, beautiful broadbills and trogons, fabulous birds like Banded Kingfisher, and a great variety of woodpeckers make every walk a unique blend of the unexpected, colorful, and shy.
In recent years a number of wildlife hides have been developed. Here our group can be ensconced in a shelter with a seat and a viewing window. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, a dizzying variety of supremely skulking birds come to drink, bathe, and take advantage of some free feed. The photographic chances are superb. Typically, every participant gets to see every species very well in this situation. Many of the local people who have set up these observation hides used to hunt, so it is a win for the wildlife, the land owner, and the wildlife enthusiast. I like this outcome, as it encourages more landholders to see value in their national treasures!
Another superb highlight in Thailand is the shorebird watching in the Gulf of Siam. It is here that I have regularly seen the greatest diversity of shorebirds at often very close range so that you can really study the species—many molting into fresh breeding plumage and looking even more striking. We have consistently seen the amazing and, sadly, highly threatened Spoon-billed Sandpiper. With a supporting cast of Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Great Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, and good numbers of sand-plovers, it makes for an epic day.
Throw further into this mix the chance for some first-class mammal sightings or bizarre reptiles, and it becomes a strikingly diverse tour. We have the chance for Asian Elephant, singing White-handed Gibbons, delicate stiletto-hoofed mouse deer, and beautiful leaf-monkeys; occasionally we find something truly elusive like Sun Bear, Dhole, Serow, King Cobra, or Asian Giant Forest Tortoise. This chance of the unexpected keeps the leader firmly on his toes.
So, when you roll all of this into a package with good roads, great hotels, excellent health care, and well-protected national parks, Thailand emerges as my favorite country. It also helps that I have been working for decades with my wonderful support team of Mike and the crew, who do such a fabulous job of looking after us.
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