There are many benefits to visiting southern Thailand during the rainy season. For one thing, accommodation prices are lower. Restaurants aren’t crowded, vendors are easy to haggle with, and everything seems a bit slower. Four of us went to Khao Sok National Park to appreciate the abundant wildlife within the park.
It was the last day of our four day PaddleAsia adventure. We all felt sluggish and stayed around the bungalows for a while. A Blue-eared kingfisher sat on the handrail leading to the floating bungalows. Its brilliant blue wings and bright rusty-orange breast mesmerized us. It would occasionally plunge-dive after the small fish that gather around the bamboo used to float the bungalows.
There was a cave we could explore, but that meant swimming through cold water. The cave has a small but impressive creek. About halfway through the cave, one must do some swimming. Swimming through a cave in a remote area of Thailand isn’t something you do every day. This day, we opted not to do it since the rain would make the creek higher and because we would be cold after the swim.
It was still raining. We sat and chatted about the previous days’ wildlife sightings. We’d seen plenty of Dusky langurs. They are exceedingly cute with their white eye-rings and big lips. Their lips are not actually that big; the white hair around their lips makes them appear bigger than they are. Spotting langurs is easy. They’re shy and whenever they see anything out of the ordinary, they take off. The good news is that they either don’t all go or they don’t go too far. When they do move, they do so in a most amazing style. They like to make tremendous leaps from tree to tree. Sometimes the distances are so long that it’s scary to watch. One thing is certain, if you see a langur make a leap and there are more langurs behind, they’ll leap from the same branch to the same branch. Monkeys use arboreal paths much like we use ground paths. If the previous monkey made it, that means that the branch is strong enough and that the route is safe.
Another thing is certain too, animals have to eat whether it’s raining or not. Though we didn’t see nearly as many animals while it was raining, we did when it stopped. The rains at Khao Sok don’t usually last a long time and it’s warm rain. Some clouds will come by bringing their watery donation. Then the rain will stop for a while. Rain forests need rain. This must happen or the environment will change. It’s a special part of the natural world that must go on as it has through the eons.
The rain routinely arrives by moving across the hills and valleys. You can see it coming, but the most awesome aspect of the setting is hearing it coming. It gives us time to put away your binoculars and sunglasses and put on our sprayskirts (the ‘gasket’ that seals the kayak cockpit to the body). The sound itself is like a smooth constant shhhhh sound. The closer it gets, the louder it gets.
Kayaking is the absolute best way to view wildlife at the reservoir in Khao Sok. Why? The jungle is thick and there aren’t many trails. The jungle is full of leeches. It’s difficult to walk silently through the jungle. Did you pick out the repeating word in these sentences? It’s ‘jungle’. This same impenetrable verdant vertical salad bar grows right down to the water. the shores of the reservoir are lined with sunlight-hungry banana trees. You can paddle silently right up to it with a kayak in complete comfort.
The rain eased up, so we rallied and went paddling. The conditions were actually very comfortable. The surface of the water was dead flat. The limestone peaks were enveloped in mist. The temperature was perfect. We paddled gently using all of our senses to enjoy the moment. There is something sublime about truly fresh air generated by a rain forest after a shower. We humans tend to rely heavily on our eyes to analyze our surroundings. That’s a shame as our other senses offer their own special opportunities. A pleasant smell, to me at least, is as gratifying as a beautiful panorama.
Our paddles dipped repeatedly in the tropical water and we covered a good distance without even noticing it. Soon, we paddled a little too close for comfort for a Southern Pied hornbill. It flew around the corner of a point between two coves. Knowing that they are gregarious, I said that we should follow it to see some more. What we saw was way more than expected. Not only were there more hornbills, but there was a whole community of animals conducting their daily routines.
A Black Giant squirrel scampered around a tree right in front of us. It’s a sizeable squirrel that’s deep black. It’s entire underbelly, in contrast, is a creamy coffee brown. Its tail is quite long. Watching the squirrel was enjoyable.
Sitting in this one place, we also watched a Pig-tailed macaque jamboree. They were eating, scratching, and definitely playing. But that’s not all. White-handed gibbons were swinging from the trees! At least a half a dozen gibbon were interspersed within the macaque community. If you’ve never seen a gibbon swinging wildly from branch to branch, you’re missing something very unique. They are capable of covering a tremendous distance in a very, very short time. You won’t see that in a zoo!
White-handed gibbons are dimorphic - they come in either black or tan. They don’t change colors; they are simply born black or born tan. A brother and sister can be different colors. A black female abruptly swung into view. A tan baby was clinging to her tummy. Baby gibbons are so cute that there’s a trade for them among some Thais. They’ll shoot a mother with her baby, hoping that the baby survives the fall. If it doesn’t, they simply look for another pair. Baby gibbons are one of the cutest animal babies in the wild. Uncaring bar owners in Thailand like to dress baby gibbons up in human baby cloths to draw tourists into their establishments. Some tourists, ignorant of the cruel methods used to collect the animals, are lured by these little lovelies.
Once grown however, gibbons in captivity become unruly. Their owners have a problem. You can guess how some of them take care of it. Others take their ‘pets’ to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project on Phuket Island where, hopefully, they can eventually be returned to the wild.
This momma didn’t have to worry about us. She went about her business with baby on board. We’d watch her swing and hold our breaths. We’d watch her jump and it made us very uncomfortable. We all commented to each other how we wished she wouldn’t take so many chances.
The other gibbons seemed to be taunting the macaques. They’d get really close, then the macaques would take chase. Don’t put your money on the macaques. A couple of Tarzan-like swings and Mr. Gibbon is whole tree away. We sat and watched this performance for a long time.
While all of this was going on, Common Flameback woodpeckers were busy chipping away soft bits from the dead trees in the water. Dead trees from the creation of this massive 165 square kilometer are still holding on throughout the reservoir. Flamebacks are marked by vivid golden backs and black and white scaly breasts. Males have a scarlet red crest.
A couple of Dusky langurs were eating leaves in the trees behind the trees with the gibbons and macaques.
Raptors use these trees too. They make great viewing platforms for these predators. A male Crested Serpent Eagle sat proudly on one of the trees in front of us. He was not concerned about us either. I could easily see his scaly feet and talons through my binoculars. Occasionally, we’d make eye contact. I don’t know how the eagle felt, but I was loving it.
A brood of Red Jungle Fowl started clucking to our left. It is believed that these are the chickens from which all of our domestic chickens derive.
The eagle glided over to a different tree. Just below him, a yellow dotted monitor lizard was sprawled out on a limb. The lizard was most likely trying to get warmed up a bit after the previous shower. It was certainly too big for the eagle, so it didn’t even bother to look up
A pair of Blue-eared kingfishers sat waiting for a meal on the lower trees at the water’s edge. There colors were more vibrant than this same species shows in the nearby saltwater Phang Nga Bay for some reason.
Some of the macaques were climbing a very tall palm tree. Most of the berries were gone, but a few remained. Suddenly, a gibbon jumps to the palm. After climbing halfway up, it looked back to see a macaque following. The gibbon went even higher. We thought that it was getting to high to make a safe jump to any of the trees below as the palm was twice as high as the surrounding trees. We all held our breaths. The macaque made its move and the gibbon gracefully slipped around and down. More macaques went up the palm.
The black mother gibbon with baby dangled in a tree near the palm. She jumped to the palm and started slowly scrambling up the tree. "Oh no!", we almost all said together. There are a lot of macaques in that tree. We’ve already seen that gibbons and macaques don’t really get along. We hoped that this wouldn’t mean trouble.
She climbed on. A couple of smaller macaques clambered up behind her. There was nothing we could do. We sincerely hoped for the best. Out of the blue, a big male macaque comes into view. It was hidden in the thick underparts of the palm. We never even noticed him. "This is not good," we thought.
All of our concern ended up being for naught. The black female gibbon just walked right past all of the macaques and took a seat by some palm berries. Who knows why she had such an easy time when all of the other gibbons seemed to be attacked whenever they ventured too close to the macaques. We didn’t understand it, but we’re glad to see that happy ending.
Have you been keeping track of how many animals we had in front of us? They’ve all been there during this whole gibbon/macaque interaction. I’ll help you - Southern Pied hornbills, a Black Giant squirrel, a Crested Serpent eagle, a monitor lizard, Red Jungle Fowl, Blue-eared kingfishers, Common Flameback woodpeckers, a couple of Dusky Langurs, Pig-tailed macaques, and White-handed gibbons. It’s not unusual for Khao Sok, as we normally see this much variety every day. It was unusual that it was all in front of us at once and for a long time.
Our senses fully satisfied, we moved on. Some rain approached from behind us, but I knew it would be a few minutes before it got to us. I looked up in a dead tree and noticed a single bird perched. I got my binoculars focused and saw that it was an Oriental Hobby, a small noble-looking raptor. The curtain of rain drew closer. A Stork-billed kingfisher, with its bright orange breast and deep blue wings, raced across our bows. I tucked my binoculars into the dry bag under the bungy cords on the deck of my kayak. It rained for a while.
We paddled on, enjoying the recent memories that we knew we would remember for a long, long time to come.