Cheow Lan Reservior in Khao Sok during monsoon season - Hornbills & Otters
Located just 3 hours from the very touristy Phuket Island, Khao Sok National Park is the most amazing birding and general wildlife spotting destination in southern Thailand. Besides a wide variety of other exotic tropical birds, the place is simply full of hornbills.
We paddle in comfortable touring kayaks in the 165 square kilometer reservoir known as Cheow Lan. Kayaks are the only way to really see the birds and other wildlife in the park. It's nearly impossible to sneak up on birds while trekking through the thick foliage.
On our first afternoon of this early September trip, I was shocked to see 7 Helmeted hornbills within about 10 minutes! These massive, very strange-looking birds have an even stranger call. It's been described as maniacal laughter. We got to see one from a relatively short distance. These birds are usually very shy, but this time we were treated to being close enough to watch one making its call. A treat indeed.
Shortly after seeing these helmeted hornbills, we saw an actual flock of Great hornbills! Yes, a flock! I counted 32 great hornbills in one small area. Seeing a couple is very exciting; seeing a flock is ineffable. These birds are huge and they make a loud whoosing noise when they fly.
As we watched the Great hornbills, three Wreathed hornbills flew high overhead.
Other birds seen during this trip include a female Asian Paradise Flycatcher (a small pure white bird with a bluish head), a Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Dollarbirds, Chestnut-breasted Malkohas, Dusky Broadbills, Green Broadbills, Chinese Pond Herons, a Vernal Hanging Parrot, Grey-capped Woodpeckers, Common Flameback Woodpeckers, Large Niltavas, Stork-billed Kingfishers, Blue-eared Kingfishers, Oriental Magpie Robins (which you almost always see in pairs), Little Spiderhunters, and a plenty of bulbuls and LBBs (little brown birds). I love little brown birds, but, to be frank, they don't get me overly excited.
The Vernal Hanging parrot was a treat. I had only seen one before and that was a brief encounter. This time, the parrot landed in a leafless tree and stayed around for a while. Just around the corner, we came upon a half dozen gibbons feeding in a tree at the end of a cove. Larry, our guest, couldn't believe how cute they were and that they would let us get close. We sat there for quite a while watching them hanging by one hand while eating fruit from their other.
On our last afternoon, we paddled to where we had seen the flock of Great hornbills. We sat in a cove on the glassy-smooth water. The air was sweet with flowery scent and the sky was changing hues by the second. Several Great hornbills were perched in a tree deep in the cove. They didn't seem to mind our presence at all. We sat silently, enjoying this blissful surrounding.
We visited the cave one morning. This is a very popular trek. Unfortunately, it gets a lot of tourists during the high season. Day-trippers come from nearby bungalow operations by the boatload on some days. We avoid the place whenever others are there. It's not part of our idea of fun. This day, we had it all to ourselves.
It's about a 3 hour round trip. The cave is exciting. About 20 minutes into the cave, you take to the water. A creek flows through the cave and at this point it gets deep. You alternate between climbing on the walls and swimming in the icy water. Well, it feels icy to us locals!
On our way back to where we stored our kayaks, we happened upon a family of otter feeding in the small creek that meanders through the thick jungle. What a treat. They didn't flee right away. They popped their little heads out of the water to check us out periodically. Eventually, they climbed up the opposite shore one by one. The last one looked back at us with a recently caught small fish in its mouth.
Paddling back to the Dam
otter Larry and I decided that we'd paddle back to the dam from the bungalows on the last day. He had proven to me over the past three days that he was more than capable of paddling for a few hours. This is a pleasant 15 mile paddle that almost anyone of reasonable fitness could do. We paddled at a nice leisurely pace, cruising into coves whenever we wanted to see some wildlife. We could see and even hear the rain that bordered our path. Larry couldn't believe the sound of the rain on the jungle as it approached us. It's sort of like radio static. The closer it gets, the louder it gets.
Once we passed through the last bit of steep limestone and headed on our final stretch of the reservoir, the sky to our right started getting really dark. It was a really sinister-looking sky. We had had a tailwind the whole way... until now. Suddenly we were hit with a heavy headwind. I checked with Larry to see if he was comfortable with the situation. He was. This was an added bonus in his eyes. To get to experience paddling in a bit of a storm in the middle of a huge warm-water reservoir surrounded by massive limestone mountains that are full of a wide variety of exotic wildlife... hey, what's not to like!
Rain or shine, this place is paradise. If you're ever planning a trip to southern Thailand, Khao Sok is a must!
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