Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan

Summary:
For our first visit to Thailand, we focused on the easy to do birding locations and split a week equally between Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan National Park. While there is a fair bit of overlap between the two parks, both have their own key birds and we found it worthwhile to visit both the locations. We also spent half a day at Pak Thale for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and an afternoon drive to the Phra Phuttabat Noi Temple yielded the Rufous Limestone Wren-babbler.
Visa: At an additional cost, we got our visas in advance from http://www.vfs-thailand.co.in hoping to save some time at the airport, but even a Visa on Arrival would have just worked fine as almost all the immigration counters were open and there was hardly any queue at 6 in the morning.
Car Rental: We pre-booked a mini car at http://budget.co.th and picked up an almost brand-new Honda Amaze from the Budget desk at the Bangkok Airport and used our phone’s Google Maps to navigate around. Driving around Khao Yai was a breeze and we also managed the “off road” drives around Kaeng Krachan, however driving the Kaeng Krachan area during the wet season could have been tricky due to the vehicles low ground clearance.
Local SIM: We purchased a local SIM card from the AIS counter at the Bangkok airport mainly to get live traffic updates on Google Maps. The SIM worked fine, but the network coverage could have been better.
Travel Dates: 16 March 2019 – 24 March 2019
Birding Sites:
Khao Yai National Park: We spent three days at Khao Yai and while birding was generally slow, we eventually managed to see most of the target birds. The cheapest and the most logical way to explore the park was to camp at any one of the several campsites within the park. However, not to miss the creature comforts, we decided to stay outside the park and had to pay an entrance fee of THB 400 per person + THB 50 for the car daily and could enter the park only at 6 AM. Birding was mostly by car and we spent our time inside the park driving slowly and stopping whenever we picked up any call or movement. Trail birding was mostly frustrating, and we hardly saw any good birds while walking the trails. Following are some of the key locations that we birded at Khao Yai:

KM33 (14°28’07.7″N 101°22’34.7″E) – A trail runs perpendicular to the road at KM33 and we spent a few hours walking the trail, however did not find anything interesting. Roadside birding around this area was more fruitful and we kept a close watch for any bird activity while driving through this area.
Nong Pak Chi Wildlife Watch Tower (14°27’13.9″N 101°21’34.6″E): Driving a little ahead from KM33, there is parking available at 14°27’03.8″N 101°22’04.2″E from where a trail runs through a patch of grassland leading to the Watchtower. We saw several birds along the trail like the Golden-headed Cisticola, Grey-breasted Prinia, Plain-backed Sparrow and Thick-billed Green-pigeon.
Trail 4 and Trail 5 (14°26’10.3″N 101°22’08.5″E): Close to the Visitor Center/food court, this trail is supposedly good for the Blue Pitta, and we spent a morning and evening birding the trail but drew a complete blank.
Pha Kluaimai Campground (14°25’51.6″N 101°24’02.8″E): We saw an Asian Emerald Cuckoo pair at the campground while the Trail 2 (Pha Kluaimai Waterfall) was mostly quiet. The vicinity of this campground (14°25’56.1″N 101°24’01.0″E) is a known stakeout for the Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo, but we failed to locate any.
Khao Khiao Road: The road leading to the Khao Khiao Report Station is excellent for birding. The section between Thanarat Lodge (14°24’20.6″N 101°22’18.1″E) and the grassland (14°23’21.6″N 101°23’13.5″E) is the area to look out for the Siamese Fireback. We just kept driving slowly along this stretch and eventually a Siamese Fireback pair crossed the road at 14°23’35.9″N 101°22’56.0″E on our second day of trying. Further ahead, we saw several Wreathed and Great Hornbills at 14°22’30.6″N 101°24’33.0″E in the backdrop of the spectacular forest landscape followed by excellent close-up views of a Silver Pheasant at the Pha Diew Dai boardwalk.
Night Drive: We booked a night drive from the Visitor Center for THB 500 and while the drive is organized by the park authorities, it is run by moonlighting villagers, so the quality of the drive varies from driver to driver. In our case, we only managed to see a Common Palm Civet during the drive, but luckily while picking up our car from the visitor center parking, stumbled upon a Malayan Porcupine that was seen very well.
Other Points:
1. Tesco Lotus express is just a block away from 7-Eleven and is not only cheaper but has more options than the 7-Eleven (14°32’04.0″N 101°22’18.0″E). A Fuel station is also adjacent to the Tesco Lotus.
2. The park is officially open from 6 AM till 6 PM. What this means is that while entry is only allowed till 6 PM, exit is possible even after nightfall allowing birders that precious dusk time to look for the nocturnal birds.
3. Everyone says this, and we want to repeat: Avoid weekends due to the massive crowds.
4. A day ticket allows multiple entry into the park in a day.
Phra Phuttabat Noi Temple (14°39’11.4″N 100°58’46.6″E): Our plan was to take a detour and visit this temple on the way to Kaeng Krachan. However, since birding at Khao Yai was getting repetitive, we decided to visit the temple on an afternoon while still at Khao Yai. Finding the Rufous Limestone Wren-babbler was straightforward, and we saw a couple of birds on the naga snake staircase, adjacent to the Golden Buddha Stupa that is situated on the left just after entering the main gate.

Kaeng Krachan: While birding at Khao Yai is more exciting and fulfilling, birding the Kaeng Krachan area is more predictable with birds mostly seen around the several hides that the villagers have setup. Following are some of the key locations that we birded at Kaeng Krachan:
Kaeng Krachan National Park (12°48’35.3″N 99°33’21.1″E): During our time at Kaeng Krachan, the access to higher elevations of the park was restricted due to roadworks and we mainly birded the KM9 area (12°48’24.5″N 99°29’55.1″E), the vicinity of the Ban Krang campsite and the Stream section. Entrance to the park costed us THB 300 per person + THB 30 for the car. The main highlight of the park is the Tickell’s Brown Hornbill, the Ratchet-tailed Treepie and the White-fronted Scops-owls, all of which we unfortunately missed.
The Hides at Kaeng Krachan: There are several hides in the Kaeng Krachan area, all of which were booked in advance by the Baan Maka staff on our request. Of all the hides, we felt that the Nuy Hide was the best managed and the owner also seemed very much interested in birding.
Pak Thale and Laem Phak Bia Salt Pans (~ 13°08’59.4″N 100°03’39.1″E and 13°02’11.1″N 100°04’35.2″E): We spent a rushed morning here and luckily managed to spot a Spoon-billed Sandpiper along with several other interesting shorebirds including the Asian Dowitcher, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, and Nordmann’s Greenshank.
Accommodation:
Isaan-Isan Resort, Khao Yai: We had three options to stay at Khao Yai: Camping inside the park, staying outside the park closer to the North entrance and staying outside the park closer to the South entrance. Camping inside the park was quickly ruled out to avoid the overcrowded campsites during the weekend and Agoda made our decision easier with an irresistible deal on a recently opened resort close to the North entrance. The resort, Issan-Isan turned out to be a pretty good place the stay. Not only were the rooms spacious and comfortable, the food was nice, and the resort was just a stone throw away from the park’s northern San Chao Pho Checkpoint (14°30’28.1″N 101°22’44.5″E). The staff was pretty helpful, and the early morning packed breakfast was always ready on time. https://www.andacura.com/isaan-isan.html
Baan Maka Nature Lodge, Kaeng Krachan: The go to place for birders, the rooms are clean, and the staff is always eager to help. http://www.baanmaka.com
Itinerary
Day 1: 16 March 2019 (Bangkok Airport – Khao Yai National Park)
We arrived at the Bangkok airport at 6 in the morning and were on the road within an hour after clearing immigration and picking up the rental car. The drive to Khao Yai was uneventful and we reached Isaan Isan by 10 AM.
Afternoon was spent driving inside the National Park, getting accustomed to the road network, scouting the various birding locations and creating a birding plan for the next three days. In between, we picked up a few birds along the road like the Black-crested Bulbul, Crested Serpent-eagle, Great Myna, Red-rumped Swallow, Taiga Flycatcher and the White-breasted Woodswallow while the Pha Kluaimai campsite produced an Ashy Drongo and an Asian Emerald Cuckoo pair.

Day 2: 17 March 2019 (Khao Yai National Park)
We spent the morning at the Pha Diew Dai boardwalk where we had some up close views of a Silver Pheasant crossing the broadwalk along with several other birds like the Alström’s Warbler, Blue Rock-thrush, Common Green-magpie, Green-billed Malkoha, Hill Blue-flycatcher, Orange-headed Thrush and an Asian Stubtail while the Khao Khiao Report Station produced an Ashy Bulbul and a Black-throated Laughingthrush.

Evening was spent at the KM33 area where a mixed hunting party produced several birds like the Black-naped Monarch, Brown-rumped Minivet, Grey-backed Shrike, Puff-throated Bulbul and White-bellied Erpornis.

Day 3: 18 March 2019 (Khao Yai National Park)
We spent the early morning hours walking the Trail 4/5 and in the afternoon moved on to Trail 2 (Pha Kluaimai Waterfall), but both trails were very disappointing, and birding was extremely slow with only a Drongo-cuckoo seen on Trail 2 and Grey-eyed Bulbuls at Trail 4/5. Other birds spotted along the roadside included Ashy Bulbul, Barn Swallow, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Common Hill Myna.
However, we got lucky in the evening when we finally stumbled upon a Siamese Fireback pair while driving on the Khao Khiao Road. We first saw a female crossing the road a little ahead of us and when we reached the spot, a Siberian Blue Robin caught our attention, however, soon a male Siamese Fireback emerged out of the vegetation and gave us fabulous views.

We also took the park organized drive in the evening and managed a see a Golden jackal and a Common Palm Civet while the parking lot produced a Malayan Porcupine.
Day 4: 19 March 2019 (Khao Yai National Park)
An early morning drive along the Khao Khiao Road produced a Red-headed Trogon, Moustached and Blue-eared Barbet, Golden-headed Cisticola, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, both Great and Wreathed Hornbills while the stakeout at Pha Kluaimai produced only a Hainan Blue-flycatcher.

In the afternoon, we drove an hour NW of Khai Yai to the Phra Phuttabat Noi Temple where we managed to see a Rufous Limestone Wren-babbler foraging on the Naga Snake staircase.

We then drove back to Khao Yai and spent the last few hours of daylight birding the Nong Pak Chi Wildlife Watch Tower trail that produced a few more birds like the Brown Shrike, Common Iora, Common Stonechat, Grey-breasted and Plain Prinia, Paddyfield Pipit, Thick-billed Green-pigeon and a Plain-backed Sparrow.
Day 5: 20 March 2019 (Khao Yai National Park – Kaeng Krachan National Park)
We left Khao Yai at 7 AM reaching Baan Maka by noon time and spent the evening at the Neung Hide that produced birds like the Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, Racket-tailed Treepie, Slaty-legged Crake, Streak-eared Bulbul, White-crested Laughingthrush and White-rumped Shama

Day 6: 21 March 2019 (Kaeng Krachan National Park and Lung Sin Hide)
We spent the morning hours at the Kaeng Krachan National Park birding the KM9 area, Ban Krang campsite and the Stream section that produced several birds like the Black-capped Kingfisher, Black-hooded Oriole, Black-thighed Falconet, Common Kingfisher, Green-eared Barbet, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Great Iora, Blue Whistling-thrush, Greater Flameback and a Ruby-cheeked Sunbird.

Evening was spent at the Lung Sin Hide where the highlight was a Yellow-rumped Flycatcher apart from other birds like Asian Emerald Dove, Bar-backed Partridge, Green-legged Partridge, Malaysian Pied Fantail, Puff-throated Babbler, Red Junglefowl, Chinese Blue-flycatcher and Stripe-throated Bulbul.

 

Day 7: 22 March 2019 (Kaeng Krachan – Pak Thale – Kaeng Krachan)
We drove down to Pak Thale in the morning along with Games, the birding guide at Baan Maka and were extremely lucky to spot a Spoon-billed Sandpiper that Games picked out among the thousands of waders that dotted the saltpans. Games came equipped with a spotting scope that was indispensable in the search while our binoculars were completely hopeless. During the course of the morning, we saw several more interesting birds like the Asian Dowitcher, a single Far Eastern Curlew, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Great Knot, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Javan and Chinese Pond-heron, Long-toed and Red-necked Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, White-winged Tern and Spot-billed Pelicans.

 

In the evening, we were back at the Neung Hide, but did not see anything interesting apart from commoners like Common Green-magpie, Indochinese Blue-flycatcher, Gould’s Sunbird, Hainan Blue-flycatcher, Laced Woodpecker, Greater Racket-tailed and Spangled Drongo.

Day 8: 23 March 2019 (Kaeng Krachan)
We spent the early morning hours at the very well maintained Nuy Hide that produced a Blue Pitta apart from other interesting birds like the Large Scimitar-babbler, Siberian Blue Robin, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Abbott’s Babbler, Black-headed Bulbul, Black-naped Woodpecker, Chinese Blue-flycatcher and a Greater Yellownape.