Monday, March 18, 2019

Ko Phayam

Our final week in Thailand and we chose this remote island on the Andaman Sea; off the beaten track, secluded and great value. The journey started with a lift to the centre of Chumphon, where we bought our sleeper tickets for the journey back to Bangkok at the end of the week. From there we took a minivan for 200 baht each which crossed the narrowest point of the Malay Peninsular then went south along the Myanmar border next to the long estuary of the Kraburi river to the border town of Ranong, where we stopped overnight.

The Slow Boat, Ranong to Ko Phayam
A local songthaew for 20 baht each took us to the pier where, because of a very low tide, we had to wait for a transfer to another pier. Thought we were being scammed but it was legitimate and free. The slow boat was 200 baht per person and took an entertaining two and a half hours. It passes vast swathes of mangrove forest and several other islands on the way. In theory the boat also serves one of these islands but to stay on Koh Chang (same name as a better known island in the Gulf of Thailand) you need to get a boat to come out to meet you as it passes. With barely any roads, this would be a real remote island adventure.

Large Flying Fox Pteropus vampyrus
On the southern tip of Koh Chang is the tiny uninhabited island of Koh Thalu. The dense forest on here thinned at the peak where maybe 200 Large Flying Foxes could be seen hanging from trees and flying around. Clearly larger than the nearby Brahminy Kites, these are very impressive bats even at a distance from the boat. I later found a roost of these on Ko Phayam (where this photo was taken) and we could see them from our accommodation as they flew out to feed at dusk.

Birds seen from the crossing included Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Oriental Pied Hornbill and a few Pacific Swallows.

At the pier on Ko Phyam we hired a scooter and got ourselves over to The Rasta House set next to a small abandoned rubber plantation close to the southern end of Ao Khao Kwai, the bay on the NW side of the island. Really friendly hosts and a fabulous bungalow high on stilts at a great price meant we were extremely happy here. It was incredibly hot and there was no air conditioning but we'd become quite well acclimatised over the previous 2-3 months and were able to sit on the balcony watching the wildlife and take morning and evening walks down to the beach.

Rasta House

The Spotted Gliding Lizards were particularly entertaining as they flew between the rubber trees. One or two Oriental Pied Hornbills visited often and a pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds were nesting right by the house.

Spotted Gliding Lizard Draco maculatus

Oriental Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros albirostris

Olive-backed Sunbird Cinnyris jugularis

Ao Khao Kwai
From eBird it appears this is a rather underwatched area and there must be potential to find birds, especially during migration seasons. For example there is only one hotspot listed for the island and the last Great-eared Nightjar record is 2002 but these were singing dawn and dusk throughout our stay and seen occasionally. I concentrated my efforts around the extensive intertidal area and adjacent scrub, forest and mangroves at the southwest end of Ao Khao Kwai, also known as Buffalo Beach. This and the other main beach of Ao Yai both had most developments set back from the shore with only a few bars tucked into the edge giving them a really deserted feel.

At low tide the mud flats had armies of small crabs swarming across them and that attracted Pacific Reef-herons, Little Egrets, Striated Herons and Pond Herons, including one or two Chinese Pond Herons coming into breeding plumage. There were some larger crabs too and a curious Box Fish, unfortunately dead.

Land Hermit Crab Coenobita sp. probably rugosus

Horned Ghost Crab Oxypode ceratophthalmus

Horn Nose Boxfish Ostracion rhinorhynchos

A flock of Lesser and Greater Sandplovers were on the flats at times. Some of the Greaters were starting to come into breeding plumage.

Greater Sandplover Charadrius leschenaultii

At the western end is an inlet and the start of a small mangrove forest. Common Sandpiper and Collared Kingfishers were here and a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles on a nest just on the other side.

Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris

White-bellied Sea-eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster

At the time of our visit the land on the far side of the inlet was cut off and a new bridge, being constructed to link the Moken community who live there with the rest of the island, remained unfinished and abandoned. In 2021, thanks to a Thai charity, a bamboo bridge has been built and Moken children can now attend school in Ko Phayam without have to wade through feet of mud.

Although traditionally nomadic people spending much of their time at sea, many Moken have become more settled in places like this so projects like this are very valuable.

Just before the bridge was the richest area in terms of birdlife. Sandy scrub and a mix of woodland held a lot of interest and there was evidence of the start of migration through here. Oriental Pied Hornbill, Pink-necked Green-pigeon, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Dollarbird, Vernal Hanging-parrot, sooty and white-headed Ashy Drongos, Olive-winged Bulbul (plus Red-eyed, Yellow-vented and Streak-eared), Asian Brown Flycatcher, Thick-billed Warbler, an Arctic Warbler type and Brown-throated Sunbird.

Ashy Drongo (Chinese White-faced) Dicrurus leucophaeus [innexus Group]

Olive-winged Bulbul Pycnonotus plumosus

Pink-necked Green-pigeon Treron vernans

No blog about Ko Phayam would be complete without a mention of the cashews. They are everywhere. It fascinated us the first time we saw a cashew tree in SE Asia but this place takes it to another level. The roads are stained with red from the fallen "apples" that get run over and you can come across people processing the nuts.

Although the apple is completely edible (and tastes rather like an actual apple), the nut is contained in a shell that releases a corrosive oil when opened. The process of getting to an edible nut is tricky, potentially unpleasant and labour intensive and each fruit bears just one nut. So the cashew is not a true nut that grows at the end of an apple that isn't a true fruit.

I wouldn't normally include so many general scenes on this mainly wildlife blog but Ko Phayam is possibly one of the most idyllic, beautiful places we've ever visited. The roads are only wide enough for two scooters to pass and the only other vehicles on the island were tiny tractors used to farm the cashews. A chance to return would be very welcome indeed, but we feel extremely fortunate to have been able to spend this time here. I suspect migration time would be fascinating.

46 species recorded here:

Spotted Dove
Pink-necked Green-Pigeon
Greater Coucal
Great Eared-Nightjar
Large-tailed Nightjar
Plume-toed Swiftlet
Red-wattled Lapwing
Lesser Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Common Sandpiper
Little Cormorant
Pacific Reef-Heron
Striated Heron
Crested Honey-buzzard
Brahminy Kite
White-bellied Sea-Eagle
Brown Boobook
Oriental Pied-Hornbill
White-throated Kingfisher
Collared Kingfisher
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Coppersmith Barbet
Vernal Hanging-Parrot
Black-naped Oriole
Ashy Drongo
Brown Shrike
Large-billed Crow
Dark-necked Tailorbird
Thick-billed Warbler
Barn Swallow
Pacific Swallow
Black-headed Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Olive-winged Bulbul
Streak-eared Bulbul
Red-eyed Bulbul
Common Myna
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
White-rumped Shama
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Brown-throated Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Forest Wagtail

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