Saturday, December 4, 2010

Birding Kaeng Kracharn National Park: A Day Trip with Tony "Eagle Eye" & Co.

Although the primary purpose of my trip to the erstwhile Kingdom of Siam was for dental work, I couldn't let such a long trip to such a wonderful birding location go without an excursion to add a few birds to my life list.  So I booked a day trip to Kaeng Krachan National Park with expert local bird guide Tony "Eagle Eye."

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's largest national park, encompassing around 45 square kilometers near the border with Burma (aka Myanmar), and is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Bangkok; it's home to over 300 species of birds, almost all of them potential "life birds" to me (meaning I'd be seeing them for the first time in my life).

As every birder knows, the day often starts before dawn, and facing a long drive from Bangkok meant an even earlier one: Tony picked me up at the hotel at 4:00am local time, and together with his wife and his brother as a driver, we set off for our day trip.  We made a stop for coffee and some breakfast along the way at a 7-11 (yes, they have 7-11s in Thailand), and the sun was just starting to come up as we neared Kaeng Krachan.

The mountainous forests at that hour are alive with sounds that I as a birder from the United States (with a smidgen of birding in the Caribbean and Europe under my belt) to be totally novel, like something out of a movie.  On familiar turf, I rely on birding "by ear" fairly heavily, helping me know which birds are hanging out in the trees and brush... but in Thailand, I was on completely unknown ground.  (I did, later in the day, recognize what had to be a woodpecker's short, high chip--that was nearly the only familiar bird sound of the trip!)  Noisier than the birds were the many gibbons, which made an unearthly racket.

A Dusky Langur
Speaking of the various primates we saw--including, I think, the noisy Black-handed Gibbons--were some Dusky Langurs, one of which I caught on film as it perched right above our car.

From the very start of our morning birding, Tony was an incredible professional.  He'd have his spotting scope out and set up before I even had begun to guess at where the birds in the dense forest canopy were.  Now, I know I'm a middling-good birder at best and have frequently found myself awed by the birding skills of friends like expert Florida birder Adam Kent (and his wife Gina), but I have to say that Tony really, really impressed me with his birding.  We'd be driving along the dirt roads through the park, and he'd signal a stop and almost immediately have a new bird in sight, no matter how thick or dense the forest above us--and he knew them all by ear and name.  I'd studied my copy of Birds of Thailand before the trip to at least familiarize myself with the sorts of things I'd see, but I would have been all day flipping pages without Tony.

As all of the birds would be new to me, I didn't have a list of particulars I just had to see (though to be fair, I kind of did want to see a Flameback, as the similarly-sized and appearing Pileated Woodpecker is one of my personal favorites back home).  So, pretty much from the outset of the trip, I was chalking new life birds on my list--as I explained to Tony, even the most common of birds would be exciting to me for this first time birding in southeast Asia.  Indeed, I recall my first visit to California, when I saw a Western Scrub Jay for the first time and was just mesmerized by a bird which is as common there as the Blue Jay is back here in the eastern US.

An Emerald Dove
In most parts of the United States, we typically see only two or three dove species with any ease, and the most common, the Mourning Dove and the imported Rock Dove (aka the ubiquitous park bench pigeon) are indeed so ordinary so as to be not worth a second glance.  I've indeed never been much interested in doves, outside the one time a Mourning Dove tried to nest in the tree outside our window in Vienna.  Yet in Thailand, the dozens of dove species struck me as beautiful and unique.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon

A White-browed Scimitar Babbler (I think!)
The dense forest coupled with the grey skies of the day made photography a bit of a challenge, necessitating high ISOs (I ended up putting my Canon 50D in "auto ISO" mode, where it could range up to a noise-plagued ISO 1600 if needed) and quick reflexes.  I do have to say that my Canon 300mm f4L coupled with 1.4x teleconverter--my normal "poor man's" birding setup as I've never had the spare change to pick up a 500mm or 600mm lens (any generous patrons out there?!)--wasn't quite up to the challenges of autofocusing in such conditions.  If I could have spared the extra 120mm of focal length, removing the 1.4x teleconverter would have probably helped a lot, as it noticeably slows autofocus on non-1-series Canon bodies.  Actually, I think digiscoping might have been the way to go, given what a great job Tony did getting the scope onto the birds.  But, I got a lot of "record" shots and a few real keepers, too--I was pretty happy overall with my day of bird photography.

A Bulbul--I think it's a Flavescent Bulbul
After a great morning of birding which included spotting a pair of Great Hornbills--massive birds which can weigh up to 9 pounds and which are best described to the non-birder as looking a bit like a Toucan--and some impressive Greater Racket-tailed Drongos among the many other species we saw, we stopped for lunch near a stream.  Tony provided lunch and had brought along a nice selection of fresh fruit, including apples, oranges (which in Thailand are green-skinned), grapes, and some persimmons from China.  We had packets of steamed rice to combine with chicken, egg, or a vegetable mix Tony warned was quite spicy when I reached for some (and it was--but I adore spicy food and had in fact had some super-spicy kaeng khiao wan or green curry for lunch the day before).

Butterflies at a Mineral "Lick"
Appropriate for someone coming from Chateau Papillon, nearby was a spectacular sight: dozens of butterflies gathered at the edge of the water, apparently collecting minerals from the red clay soil (that red clay was too-familiar as well for someone living on the piedmont-side of the fall line in Virginia).

We birded in the lower elevations alongside the streams and rivers throughout the afternoon, and as Tony had promised earlier in the day, we indeed did get to see some Greater Flamebacks--a group of five of them, all told!  Although I didn't get a photo of these beautiful woodpeckers (they were so deep in the foliage it was a challenge making them out at all), getting to see them was in and of itself a wonderful treat.  (The photos in the linked Wikipedia article above really do not do them justice.)

Red-bearded Bee Eater
One of the noisier birds of the day was the beautiful Red-bearded Bee Eater.  I can't describe its sounds, other than to say that much like the Carolina Wren, the bird's volume is far greater than its body size would suggest.

Tony patiently pointed out the locations of several species I had a hard time spotting in the forest, using a green laser pointer to help steer me in the right direction.

Tony "Eagle Eye" (Thanaphat Kinglek) and his wife
In contrast to the morning, the afternoon was fairly quiet--though as I said above, we did see several great birds in the afternoon, including another hornbill, this time an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Though my photo wasn't the best I could have taken, it was again a great spotting for a Thailand birding newbie like me.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped along the Bight of Bangkok to look for the rare and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which winters in southeast Asia.  Just as the sun was about to set, Tony found one amongst the flocks of plovers and other shorebirds and called me over excitedly to his scope.  Though it was too far off for me to attempt to get even a "record" photo of, I still got to see a fantastic species; there are less than 2500 of them left in the world.  The sandpiper's spoon bill is unmistakable.

Plovers along the Bight of Bangkok
After that magnificent spotting, we climbed back into the car for the drive home, stopping for dinner at the ubiquitous 7-11, with some hot dogs and some sort of sweet-filled fried pasty for dessert.  It was a long day of birding, starting at 4:00am and wrapping up around 8:00pm, but a worthwhile trip.  Overall, I added several dozen new species to my "life list," including in addition to those I've pictured and mentioned: the Vernal Hanging Parrot, the Asian Fairy Bluebird, several flycatchers (Tickell's, Verditer, Ferruginous, and Hill Blue, I believe), the Sultan Tit, and the Little Spider-hunter which buzzed me while I was looking for a different bird entirely.  (And many others!)

Sunset over the Bight of Bangkok
It was a great birding expedition, and I cannot stress enough what a great guide Tony "Eagle-Eye" was.  I do hope I can talk Beth into making the long trip to Thailand in the future, and that we can both spend a couple of days birding under Tony's expert eyes.  I'd love to be able to bring our friend and fellow birder Adam Kent along, too, and share the experience with him and put Adam's birding acumen to the test.

Friday, December 3, 2010

One Night in Bangkok, One Afternoon at ... the Dentist?

No, I didn't take singing lessons from Murray Head, but my first night in Bangkok is behind me now, albeit a day late due to the vagaries of modern air travel.  The primary purpose of my trip is a visit to the dentist.

That's right, the dentist.  Back in 2006, I had the shock of a $7500+ dental bill for a few onlays; fast-forward to this year, and my current dentist (different guy, obviously!) gave me the bad news that those platinum-priced onlays were failing and needed to be replaced with crowns.  After a $1800 dentist bill for just two crowns at that dentist (and mind you, that's after my insurance paid $900), I wasn't quite ready to fork out another $3600 for four new crowns!  Factor in that I'd used up my dental insurance for the year already, and we're talking a $4500 expense.

Rewind to 2006 for a moment, when after hearing of the ridiculous cost of those onlays, several friends suggested my money would have been better spent on a trip to Thailand--one of the world's premier "medical tourism" destinations thanks to the quality of their medical system plus the exchange rate between the baht and dollar--where I could have paid for the same work, a flight, and a week at a five-star beach resort to recuperate and still have had several thousand dollars left over.  I kind of laughed at the idea then, but the frequent traveler in me coupled with sticker shock over necessary dental work had me seriously thinking about going to the kingdom of Siam.

As for the costs of a trip, hotels in Thailand are cheap by US standards.  Bought at the advance-purchase rate, a night at a five-star resort hotel like the Millennium Hilton is around $100 (and I've paid nearly double that for a Hampton Inn stateside this year).  Dining can be had for $10 or less per meal for some tasty cuisine.  And airfare isn't ridiculous; I paid a bit over $1000 for my ticket, but that was to get an upgradeable fare which would let me fly in business class instead of economy.  So add up airfare, hotel, meals, and the dentist, and it's still less than what I'd be paying stateside.

Needless to say, weighing the cost of those crowns in the US vs. a trip abroad came down on the side of travel.

After doing much research on clinics, I settled on Thantakit, who despite having a somewhat cheesy Web site (though you should see a few of their competitors--definitely seems like the Thai medical industry hires Web developers who studied site design circa 1995), came highly recommended by both personal experiences of frequent travelers I know as well as with good online reviews.  They are a bit pricier than several of the ubiquitous dental clinics in Thailand--on par with the top-line hospitals in Bangkok--but even at that and a worsened exchange rate with the baht, cost less than half what my out-of-pocket would have been even if I hadn't used up my dental insurance for the year.

Thantakit sent a shuttle van to pick me up at the hotel, and after a 40 minute ride--traffic being atrocious in Bangkok--I arrived at their very classy, clean offices.  Now, no ding on my current US-based dentist, but I'm so used to dental facilities which look like they were build in 1970 that this was quite a pleasant change.

On to the consultation and initial appointment itself: the dentist spoke very good English and took a quick look  at my teeth, took several photos, and then sent me over for x-rays.  The x-ray equipment was the same state-of-the-art computerized system I'd used at the $7500-onlay clinic in Washington, D.C., though to save on my final bill, the dentist only took bitewings and not a full panoramic set.  The clinic took them digitally, instead of on film (this is a nice plus), and rather than having to bite down on an awkward film cartridge holder, one of the technicians positioned the sensor and held it in place during the x-ray--the only strange bit of the procedure, as she's taking a bit much radiation to her hands in the process.

Back to the exam to go over with the x-rays with the dentist.  Now, I'd expected a pressure-sell technique where the dentist would try to get me to go in for pricier options or for more services than I needed; I've had that happen in the US before, and was certain I'd experience it at a clinic whose primary business is dental tourism.  But I was honestly and pleasantly surprised to have the dentist argue for a more conservative, less-expensive treatment plan.  The remaining two one-surface inlays didn't need crowns, he explained, pointing out on the photos and the x-ray that most of their problem was in their surfaces having worn badly.  They simply weren't large enough fillings or in teeth used heavily in chewing to require a crown.

Chalk one up to the good guys.  Here I was willing to fork out a lot more money, and the dentist talked me out of it.

He also explained that for a molar and pre-molar crown, a noble metal covered with ceramic crown was a better option than all-ceramic for strength, and that though all-ceramic looked better, for teeth that far back in the mouth, he didn't see the need.  Yes, I agreed entirely.

On to the treatment.  The dentist went over everything ahead of time which he would be doing (that's more than any dentist I've gone to in the US has done), and explained if I was ever uncomfortable, to raise my hand (as opposed to the instruction to "tell us"--yes, that's what I hear in the US all the time from dentists: "tell us" when you've got a mouthful of dental probes, drills, retractors, and the associated paraphernalia off some sadist's confession-extraction kit in use).

"I'll give you the injection to numb the tooth now," he explained, and there wasn't even a pinch from it.  This may be a strange observation, but in the US, Novocaine injections frequently hurt quite a bit (the exception being the $7500-onlay dentist, who used an automated metering system to deliver the anesthetic--though the added cost was not worth it in his case).  I don't mean the needle itself so much, although that "pinch" the dentist warns of does often hurt.  No, I mean the anesthetic itself, which can send quite a burst of pain down the nearest nerves during the injection.  But this didn't hurt at all; I can only chalk it up to the dentist having a really careful hand and taking his time with the injection (it took a good minute to fully deliver the Novocaine).

Then came that most dreaded of dental implements, the drill.  Beth has described our current American dentist as being "quite fond of his drill," and indeed, I've spent a long afternoon or two in the chair wondering when the heck he'd be finished.  But another pleasant surprise awaited me: the drilling itself took a bit less than an hour for the two crowns plus some work on my inlays, and a filling for a cavity between two of my teeth.  It wasn't painful.  I can't ever describe dental excavation as pleasant, but it certainly wasn't an awful experience, either.

Finally, after taking some molds (downgrading to the noble metal + ceramic crowns necessitated molds vs. the photo-aided CAD/CAM milling I'd had for the past several dental procedures), the dentist put in place a temporary crown--explaining up front and apologizing that the process would smell like hot plastic for a few minutes--and sent me on my way, to come back in a few days and get the final crowns installed.

I'm due back to get those crowns in a couple of days--time needed for the lab to fabricate them to spec--and will report back once I've completed my dental tourism experience.  But so far, I have to say: this was the best dentist I've ever gone to.  Wish I could justify going to Thailand every six months for basic dental care instead of only the big-ticket stuff!

Stranded in Seattle: A Brief Travel Interlude (And Why Trip Insurance Is Only Useful When You Didn't Buy It)

My trip had begun uneventfully enough with a pleasant breakfast flight to Seattle (trading, in the process, the dreary, wet late fall of east coast Washington for the dreary, wet late fall of west coast Washington), a trip to the Seattle Red Carpet Club, and then a glass of champagne onboard my connecting flight to Tokyo-Narita airport.

That's when things went south, and not, unfortunately, with me onboard and in the air.  "You may have noticed the plane is fairly warm," the flight attendant announced.  (Actually, after opening my air vent, it had seemed fine for once.)  "We're having some problems with our air conditioning, and we're going to have to have everyone leave the plane while we try to fix it."


On the way to the Red Carpet Club, I was already on the phone with first United--getting "protected" onto the next day's flights and investigating alternative routings (none available, unfortunately, other than an awful, knee-breaking economy-class booking through Vancouver and Taipei) and trying to clean up the mess made of my hotel reservations.  E-mails off to several folks in Thailand to give them heads-up that I might be delayed.

Monitoring (a far more reliable indicator of flight status than the normal airline web site), I saw flight 875 pick up a 30 minute delay, then 45... then saw it marked "DECISION," meaning that they'd set a time at which the airline would decided whether or not to fly the plane at all.  Ugh.

While I was on the phone with the United 1K international reservations desk (thank goodness for 1K--no wait on hold, and the agents I spoke with were able to give Anglo names like "Jason" without having to mute the phone and snicker, struggling to maintain a poker face from a cubicle in Bangalore) trying to nail down my flight options, I saw the flight go from "decision" to "departs 3:30pm"--only two hours late, but potentially tough on my connection in Tokyo, which was scheduled right at two hours.

Back at the gate, the airline announced they were just waiting for the crew to board, and we'd be on our way.  (Argh!)  The crew finally showed up--why they hadn't just disappeared to the lounge or employee ready room, I'm not sure--but then we got more bad news: the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU) was busted.  Among other things, the APU provides power for onboard systems should one of the plane's main engines fail.  Although Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, was just up the street a bit, we had to instead fly to San Francisco, where United has a maintenance base and where we'd switch planes for one with a functional APU.  (For those wondering, it's safe to fly non-ETOPS routes without an APU--hence the plan to fly to SFO--it's just when you get out over the ocean and more than 60 minutes from any airstrip that you need the insurance.)


But the plane had been loaded with enough fuel to get us to Tokyo, which would put us way overweight for landing in San Francisco.  Obviously, United didn't want to circle SFO and burn or dump fuel, wasting nearly 80,000 pounds of black gold.  Worse, after some checking, apparently Seattle didn't have the necessary tanker pumps to offload fuel safely on the ground, so after a few more minutes, the flight cancelled.  (I'd already seen on that the flight had gone to a scheduled departure time of 10:30am by then--meaning the next morning.  Sigh.)  Off to the Red Carpet Club to pick up hotel and meal vouchers for the night, and to debate whether or not to have the airline simply send me home, declare a "trip in vain," and refund me the cost of the ticket.

The SeaTac Marriott is a decent enough hotel, though I had to pay for internet access--too bad United didn't put me up at the Hilton, where I've got mid-tier status.  Speaking of Hilton, I had to make a new hotel reservation at the Bangkok Hilton, as thanks to the lost day, my plans to fly down to Phuket and stay at the Hilton there, do some birding in the mangrove forests and jungle and along the coast in the land where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed were now toast.  Not getting to bird in Phuket was disappointing, but the whole point of my trip was dental work (making many of the expenses partially or wholly tax deductible to boot)--fortunately, I was able to reschedule my dental visits before leaving Seattle.

This is where trip insurance would have come in handy.  My non-refundable hotel fares could have been reimbursed, as could my Thai Air flight to Phuket which I'd now undoubtably miss (neither all that pricey, but still frustrating to be out).  Of course, had I spent the $100 or so in insurance, you can bet nothing would have gone wrong on my trip in the least...

I'd have liked to have spent the afternoon and evening exploring Seattle itself--a city I've been to previously only in the form of its main airport.  However, the importance of tying up loose ends for my trip (and dealing with a 9-hour time difference in the process) outweighed my sightseeing needs, and the weather in Seattle coupled with the fact I left my jacket at home not expecting to need it (Thailand is sunny and 80-90 degrees this time of year) kept me holed up at the Marriott.

Finally, the next morning, everything was ready to go, with two UA 875 flights now scheduled to operate from SEA-NRT.  Ours would go out first, at 10:30am, with the regularly-scheduled flight to follow at 1:30pm.    The only loose end remaining was my flight to Bangkok, for which I'd lost my confirmed business class seat due to the rescheduled flights and was now waitlisted (with the check-in agent very discouraging about my chances: "It's completely full.")  I won't bore you with the intricate inner mechanisms of how upgrades work on United, other than to say that between my top-tier status (1K) and the fact my rebooked flight to Bangkok was artificially showing now as being "full fare" (instead of discount) economy, I should stand a decent chance of being at the top of the list, should a business seat open up.  Well, that's to find out in Tokyo, 10 1/2 hours away once we're airborne.

Onward to the land of Siam...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Culture Shock Is...

Culture shock is:

Getting off a plane after 22 hours of being up in the air (and 22 more in airline delays), arriving midnight local time, and having to look at a paper to see what day it is when my watch, my body, and the local time announced by the pilot all give different answers.

Realizing that the looking at the local papers to find the date doesn't help, because you don't read the language.

Getting off a plane in a country where you not only don't speak a word of the language, but don't speak a word of the entire language family.  At least in Europe, some knowledge of a Romance language goes a long way.

But if Anna Leonowens could do it, I suppose I can, too.  (Yes, that is a hint as to where I've traveled.)

More of this travel adventure to come...