The second portion of our world tour is officially over. Birding Thailand was a huge success and exceeded our expectations in many ways. Birding information for the country is readily available and with sites such as Thaibirding and NorthThailandBirding detailing many of the country’s “hotspots,” it is very easy to get a good sense of where to find most of the uncommon species. The game plan for Thailand was simple: bird as many locations as possible and hit as many regions as possible. This tactic worked very well and over a course of 33 days in the country, of which only 31 were “birding days” we managed to find 557 species of birds, well surpassing my initial goal of 500 species.
How we stacked up compared with tour groups: Sticking with the initial idea of “budget birding” I always like to see how we stack up against the big tour groups. Most tours last about 23 days (including the south extension) and see around 480 species. These trips usually cost about $5500-$6500 per person. Our trip ended up costing $2205 for TWO people– 81.6% cheaper than most birding tours! Add in the fact that we spent an additional 8 days in the country and saw about 80 more species than most tours, I would consider it a win and over a three week portion we also had close to 500 species. I have nothing against birding tours, most bird guides are great (though clients on tours can be total tools…more on that later) and some people don’t like camping all the time or have the time to prepare. But for those out there with a lot of ambition and a little budget, Thailand is very doable by yourself.
The birds: Ending up with 557 species greatly exceeded all of my goals. The central part of the country was great. Pak Thale and Kaeng Krachan were some of the biggest highlights of the trip. There are tons of great birds and awesome mammals to be had at Kaeng Krachan, although my first few days there were a bit overwhelming as I had just arrived in the country and had done next to nil when it came to studying the book or listening to sounds. Luckily I started to catch on pretty quickly. With any amount of proper preparation, getting on a large variety of birds shouldn’t be too difficult. The south, as expected, was tough birding. Sri Phang Nga and Krung Ching were great spots, but at times it was very difficult to get on birds, especially because we didn’t have much luck with fruiting trees until the last day at Krung Ching on the drive out. Khao Yai on the other hand was disappointing. Some good birds, but too much tourism. As anticipated, the north was absolutely fantastic. Doi Lang (both Fang and Thaton side) were great birding as was Doi Inthanon National Park. I wasn’t as impressed with the Chaing Dao area, but still enjoyed the little time we spent there. We also visited Mae Wong and Mae Ping National Parks in the west. These rarely visited parks were both fantastic. Mae Wong offers great elevation birding with some difficult to get species being very easy and Mae Ping’s dry dipterocarp forests are home to numerous species not usually encountered elsewhere on a trip to Thailand.
Overall birding highlights included 13 species of gamebirds, 46 shorebirds, 7 hornbills, 12 barbets, 17 woodpeckers, 6 broadbills, 5 pittas (all seen, and 6 if you include the Blue-winged Pitta I freed from captivity), 26 bulbuls, 18 phylloscopus warblers, and 26 babblers.
Cost Breakdown and Analysis:
Rental Car: $662. This was by far the biggest expense of the trip, but also a great asset to birding Thailand. A DIY trip to Thailand can be done much cheaper with public transportation, but of course by using public transportation you will lose out on A LOT of time. We rented our vehicle through Avis. Although it was nothing special, a small Toyota Vios, it got the job done. The most frustrating aspects of the car were that it didn’t have a defrost feature (not sure how that’s even possible) nor did it have heat. Other than that, the car performed great. The majority of roads in the country were in pretty good shape, even in the national parks. The only road we were unable to bird with our car was the road up the Thaton side of Doi Lang. High clearance is necessary on that road and lucky for us we ran into a kind-hearted birder who took us out for the day and allowed us to get some great birds. We did take our vehicle up the “4WD only” road to the top of Kaeng Krachan National Park. It bottomed out a little crossing the streams and going up steep sections were a little tricky, but it is definitely doable in a typical small car for those who are thinking about it. We also relied heavily on Garmin’s SE Asia Maps using our Garmin Nuvi GPS. Although the GPS messed up occasion, it was still a great asset for the trip and a must for anyone attempting to drive the country by themselves.
Food: $449. Although food was the second highest cost of the trip, the food in Thailand is both great and cheap. Most national parks had a little restaurant and we often ate at roadside stands while traveling. The typical cost in rural areas was about $1-$1.50 USD for food such as Fried Rice with chicken and $2 for other chicken plates. Tourist areas, like Krabi, were a bit more at about $3-3.50 for a meal. Most times when we ate, I ordered two to three plates as most servings are small, but at such a cheap price, it’s still a great deal. Other costs of food such as a bunch of bananas was $0.75-$1, a whole roasted chicken was around $3.75, and a bag of oranges around $2. With a final cost of $449, we averaged about $13.60 per day for food for the both of us.
Gas: $391. Gas was also a big expense due to the amount of driving. Overall, I drove a total of 8723 km (5408 miles!) during the 33 days. It was A LOT of driving, mostly done at night between major regions, but these long overnight drives saved daylight birding hours and allowed us to cover a large portion of the country. Gas stations are readily available and finding a 24 hour station usually isn’t too hard. Only once while traveling between Chaing Mai and Doi Lang in the middle of the night did I almost run out of gas. I literally only had a few km left in the tank and was about to stop at a closed station until it opened when we finally found a 24hr one.
Lodging: $140. For the most part, we camped everywhere we went. Almost all of the birding done in Thailand is within or near a national park and every national park has at least one campground. Although park admission fees can be a bit pricey and add up, the camping costs itself are very cheap. All of the camp grounds charge $1 per person per night. Costs are a bit higher if you also rent gear, but since we had our own gear, it was very cheap. We also slept in the car about 5 nights (mostly related to overnight drives) and stayed in a few hostels, hotels, and a lodge. Had we not stayed at the hotel in Krabi or at Baan Maka (alright place, but way over priced at 1400 bht per night) lodging costs would be much lower. Camping in Thailand is the way to go. Not only is it super cheap, you also have access to the park after dark. The majority of national parks close at 1800 (or even earlier). Staying within the park saves tons on entrance fees and allows you to get good night birds and mammals as well.
Park fees: $119. Visiting the national parks in Thailand can get pricey. Most parks charge a fee of $6 per person plus $1 for the vehicle each time you enter the park (so if you’re staying outside the park it can really add up quickly). Park costs did vary though with the cheapest being $3 (Mae Ping) per person and the most expensive being $12 (Khao Yai) per person!
Boat Tour: $144. Getting Nicobar Pigeon isn’t cheap. Anyway you do it will cost at least 2200 baht per person and take up the majority of the day, but if you want to see the pigeon, then it’s well worth it
Toll Roads: $5.48. Toll roads are rare in Thailand and found only around Bangkok. Unlike Japan, don’t worry about taking the toll roads in Thailand as they are ridiculously cheap.
Souvenirs: $49.83. Various things to take home
Public Transportation: $29.41. This all dealt with getting to Bangkok after dropping off our rental car and getting to the bus station to depart for Cambodia
Massages: $62.58. Whenever afforded the opportunity, Melissa would jump on the idea of getting a massage. At about $6-$9 for an hour long massage, it was hard to say no.
Other: $152. This included everything from personal hygiene gear, batteries, visiting an elephant training center, riding an elephant, paying a traffic violation (oops) ect.
Hopefully the above breakdown gives you a good idea of how to budget for a DIY trip to Thailand. There are plenty of good birding reports on Thailand available online, but frustratingly only a few give a good view into what the actual cost it. With money being one of the biggest factors when planning a trip more birders should include costs in their reports.
Random Note: I was absolutely astonished by the behavior of most birding tour clients we ran into during the trip. Most seemed completely appalled when I’d say hello and ask them how things were going. Almost all of them acted as if all I was trying to do was pry information from them. To me it’s always a joy running into others that share the same passion as me and I usually jump on the opportunity to see how things are going, but I guess that’s not always the case with others. That being said, the majority of bird guides we ran into were very helpful and would stop to talk for a few minutes. They were much more enjoyable than their clients. We also ran into a few independent birders during the trip who were all very nice and helpful. I guess those who have just forked out a few thousand for a tour trip feel that being nice to a passerby birder is just too much to handle. Oh well.