Kaeng Krachan & Hala Bala, Thailand 2021(NEW)

Kaeng Krachan NP (Phetchaburi) & Hala Bala (Narathiwat) April 2021

For our final two week trip before we leave Thailand in June we decided to revisit our favourite area (Kaeng Krachan) and try one more new area (Hala Bala). This involved long driving distances, including a 14 hour drive in one go to help maximise time at these locations. We did not have any specific targets in the Kaeng Krachan area, but you never know what you might see in this area so we decided to stay once again at Baan Maka Nature Lodge and enjoyed the company of Ian and Games. The first rains had arrived early and although this depleted our chances of see a Leopard, it increased our observations of amphibians and some reptiles.

The decision to go to Hala Bala in Narathiwat was quite last minute. Andy Pierce dropped by to say farewell before I left Thailand but then he mentioned he was planning to head to the deep south. A Wirot’s palm pit viper (Trimeresurus wiroti) had been photographed by many birders there so we decided to go for it despite the 20 hour drive to get down there. Having spent some time in neighbouring Yala (see previous reports;), I was curious to see how this compared to the Hala area which has a reputation as being a great place for wildlife watching, albeit in a dodgy area for insurgency and terrorist activity.

Overview of visited areas in Phetchaburi and Narathiwat.

Kaeng Krachan/Baan Maka/Phetchaburi

For the first week of the trip there were no specific targets in the Kaeng Krachan area. However this region is so rich in fauna that I was happy to revisit a number of places and look for species that I have no seen many times before. Prior to our arrival a number of Indochinese leopards had been seen in various places. However the first rains arrived early and I feel this finished off our chances of seeing a leopard again. However I cannot complain as I did see a beautiful black leopard already in 2020 (see here: https://mwilsonherps.com/photo-galleries/mammal-trip-to-phetchaburi-thailand/).

That being said some mammals were still on the menu, I love elephants so I wanted to see if the herd I had located around a water hole in 2020 were still in the area. I did drop by this place twice since then, in July and December 2020 with no sign of this particular herd of between 10-15 elephants. Nor did I see any locals/photographers out looking for them so I figured they had moved deeper into the mountain range. So you can imagine my delight upon arriving at the spot this time and immediately hearing and then briefly seeing a herd of these giants moving through the thick bamboo at the edge of the water hole. Although less than 10 metres away (I was in the car!) the elephants could not be seen as once they are the thick forest they are almost invisible. Therefore we waited for several hours, following the noise of the crashing bamboo so that we could hopefully get a look at the herd. It wasn’t until nearly 6pm that they began foraging right by the roadside, although still invisible at this stage. After more waiting the first elephant emerged and started walking along the road, soon followed by several others and even a youngster! In total 10 elephants emerged, walked down the road and then disappeared again into the thick bamboo and forest on the opposite side. Although I have a number of highlights of watching elephants over the past few years, this was another one of them!

Another notable day was after a heavy storm in the evening which triggered the brief appearance of several burrowing species of amphibians which are rarely seen for the rest of the year. Notably the Truncate snouted burrowing frog (Glyphoglossus molossus), Striped burrowing frog (Glyphoglossus guttulatus) as well as Mukhlesur’s Chorus Frog (Microhyla mukhlesuri), Painted chorus frog (Microhyla pulchra) and a number of other non-burrowing species. Amongst all the frog excitement I did tick off a species of snake that I had not previously seen, the Many-spotted cat snake (Boiga multomaculata) finding two individuals moving around in the rain. A couple of other notable reptile species encountered included a massive Small-spotted coral snake (Calliophis maculiceps) of over 70cm, and a wonderful Asian giant tortoise (Manouria emys). I have now been lucky to see three individuals of these giant tortoises during my trips to the Kaeng Krachan area.

We are once again grateful to Ian and Games at Baan Maka Nature Lodge for the hospitality, it was also great to see Ton again for some herping.

Striped Burrowing spadefoot toad (Glyphoglossus guttulatus) calling after a heavy storm

Mukhlesur’s Chorus frog (Microhyla mukhlesuri) calling from a rain pond

Lesser mouse deer (Tragulus kanchil) grooming in Kaeng Krachan NP

A Malayan porcupine (Hystrix brachyura) inspecting the camera
A family of Gaur (Bos gaurus) coming to the stream for a drink

Hala Bala (Narathiwat)

Tempted down to the deep south by Andy Pierce we decided to floor the car over a two day trip to reach Narathiwat to give us 4 nights in the Hala Bala area bordering Malaysia. My first drive from Hua Hin to Hat Yai took over 14 hours due to Songkran traffic heading south. I was truly exhausted by the time I arrived at the hotel! The next day was a relatively easy 5 hour drive from Songkla into Narathiwat and then down to Bala, passing through many heavily armed checkpoints! We were very impressed with our homestay accommodation and quickly headed out into the forest. A much desired Wirot’s pit viper (Trimeresurus wiroti) had been sighted at one spot but crappy information/descriptions of the place meant that I didn’t even find the location until the last night. The snake was already long gone in any case. Despite a larger number of birders in the area than usual it was still very quiet, owning to the general lack of outside visitors to this part of Thailand. The car certainly took a beating on parts of the mountain road! We met with Andy and did a mixture of daytime bird watching and the nocturnal wanderings for mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Two big mammal targets for this area didn’t work out so well. Although we heard Siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus) and Agile gibbons (Hylobates agilis) each day, they never came into view, apart from one crappy photo I took of the latter. The area as expected was alive with special birds such as several Broadbill species as well as 10 species of Hornbill. We managed to see half of these, the Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) being a new species for me. One night we also saw a juvenile Frogmouth species hunger calling from the top of a tree.

However as expected all the really awesome things happened at night! Mammal watching was some of the best I have experienced in Thailand with over a dozen sightings each of Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang) and Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). A Small-toothed palm civet (Arctogalidia trivirgata), an unidentified Wild Pig species and a Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) were also seen but without photos. The Leopard cat was only metres away from us one evening as we were hiking, being too late to spot it. The big difference between this protected area and the non-protected areas of neighbouring Bala is that such mammals are hunted much less. For example on my trips to Yala I have seen very few mammals due to a lot of poaching activity. The contrast between to the two locations is most obvious with the many groups of calling gibbons each morning in Bala compared to complete silence in the forests of Hala to the west.

Amphibians in the south, especially the deep south are among the most exciting in Thailand. Keen for Andy to see some of ‘Thailand’s top five frogs’ we managed Wallace’s flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus), Malayan horned frog (Megophrys acercas) and then the King of Asian frogs himself, the Long-nosed horned frog (Megophrys nasuta). To have a chance of seeing ‘nasuta‘ in Thailand it seems that only the deep south will suffice, notably the provinces of Yala and Narathiwat. That being said, these frogs seemed less abundant here than in Hala. Some other froggy highlights down here were the Bala litter frog (Leptobrachella sola), Slender-legged toad (Leptophryne borbonica) and the abundant Larut hill cascade frogs (Amolops larutensis). Notable lizard species found in the area are typical for the deep south of Thailand with Peter’s bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus consobrinus), Great flying lizard (Draco maximus) and Giant angle-headed lizard (Gonocephalus grandis) among the best finds.

As for snakes I have found the deep south to be a tricky place to find them compared to other areas of Thailand. It is often some of the most dense, pristine rainforest where I see less snakes than anywhere. That being said, there were some highlights. A new species for me was a Brown wolf snake (Lycodon effraenis) found crawling near a waterfall one night, as well as a fiesty Malayan krait (Bungarus candidus), a Banded slug-eater (Pareas carinata), and a large Black-headed cat snake (Boiga nigriceps). However we saved the best snake encounter for the end of the trip. As I drove around scanning for nocturnal mammals I mentioned to the others that ‘we haven’t even seen a snake tonight..’. Then as a turned the corner, slowly crossing the road was by far the largest Reticulated python (Python reticulatus) I have ever seen. We estimate it was around 6 metres in length and incredibly thick. As a snake of this size does what it wants I knew I only had a limited amount of time to record the event. I chose to just use my wide angle lens with a powerful flash to capture the size of the beast. It give us about 30 seconds to have a good look and then slowly started to retreat back into the forest. It was amazing how the big fella almost completely vanished once he entered the roadside vegetation. This was to date the only snake I have ever met in the wild that I believe would be capable of eating a human. However all he wanted to do at the time was get away from these annoying flashing lights and be left in peace 🙂 A truly magical way to end our trip to the pristine forest range of Bala! The next morning as we left the homestay and started driving back to the main highway (still thinking of the giant python!) I came across three dead on road Malayan pit vipers (Calloselasma rhodostoma) and one live and one dead Yellow-striped rat snake (Coelognathus flavolineatus). Eleven hours later I was back in Phuket..

Reticulated python (Python reticulatus) of around six metres in length in the forests of Bala. Phone footage.

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