Saturday, August 19, 2017

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure, Act VII

For all other entries on my journey to Bhutan and Thailand, see the above "Bhutan and Thailand" tab.

Act VII: To Bird or Not To Bird:
There Is No Question: Bird

Eat. Drink. Walk. Run. Bird. Which one of those words don't belong with the rest?

My answer? Run. I partake in all the others, but I sure don't run. Did you pick "bird" thinking it was the only noun? Silly you.

See, there are birdwatchers, and there are birders. And, of course, there are the poor souls who do neither. What's the difference, you ask? Well, poor souls live not knowing what they are missing. Birdwatchers watch birds. Birders bird.

Imagine this scenario: Birdwatcher Sam, Birder Diane, and two Normal People, let's call them Norm and Cliff, spend most of their day on a walk on a beach, oh, let's put them somewhere in Thailand. Exhausted, thirsty, and with a desperate desire for a cold beer, they stop at a beach-side bar named Cheerful's and await service from pregnant, sarcastic waitress Carla. They see, at the exact same moment, Carla taking her time approaching, and a Spoon-billed Sandpiper zipping down the beach. Norm and Cliff greet the waitress and place their order. Sam fumbles around into his daypack, unzipping it to pull out his binoculars, while mumbling "Damn, I should've had these ready. I'll have a cold one, too..." Diane, meanwhile, has vaporized into a cloud of sand down the beach, binoculars, field guide, and camera in hand because they never left those hands. Carla shrugs and walks off to get three beers.

Birding in Maine, 2001
Birdwatching in Montana, ca. 1997
What Norm and Cliff know is that their beer is on the way. What Sam knows is that his beer is on the way too, and that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, this little white and speckled bird with an unusual bill that ends in a spoon-like paddle, is one incredibly rare bird. He trots off to get a better look. What Diane knows is that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is not only rare, but also that where she is now is the best place and time to see this bird on the entire PLANET. She also knows that people -- well, birders -- travel to this place, at this time, from all over the world to catch a glimpse of this bird. And some do, while some miss out. She also knows that with this sighting, she will be able to tick off one of the specialty birds on the list of Thailand -- and Asia, heck, even the world, for that matter -- birds to add to her "life list," the accumulated tally of a birder's suite of bird species seen in their life. Thailand was a vacation for Norm and Cliff. Sam came for the vacation and "to watch birds." Diane came to BIRD. She came prepared, was prepared, and is always prepared to seek out, and find, birds.

Yup, that's me standing up in the back seat of a 1950 Land Rover. Birding, Tanzania, 1982
Birdwatcher v. birder. Get it now? I fall around 100% on the birdwatcher scale, and around 50% on the birder scale. I probably would've vaporized down the beach like Diane while shouting "I'll take a margarita...on the rocks, with salt!" to Carla.

Me. Full-on birdwatcher, partial birder, Amazon River 2014
So, when the opportunity of a Bhutan journey came along, I turned to Google. Tap-tap-tap on the keyboard. I had never touched my little toe on the Asian continent. What's that you say, oh wise Google? Thailand has 10% of the world's bird species? And we fly in and out of Bangkok? Hmmmm...could I possibly extend my trip a bit and do some birding in Thailand?

Who would NOT want to see these birds?
Image from gift shop card, artist Kamol Komolphalin
My internet search "Thailand Birding Guide" led me to and Nick Upton, a British birder living in Thailand for the past two-plus decades and a professional guide. As it turns out, he and two of his guides were available the week after my Bhutan journey. Nick was sure to mention this was NOT the most productive time of year for birding (hence his availability; mid-November was apparently not the time when 100% birders would be here); certain top-level, high-interest birds simply would be near impossible to spot. But, for the Asia-birding neophyte like me, there's still the possibility of seeing 200+ species, possibly more, including the delightful Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I'm set!

Birdwatching, Bhutan 2016
We settled on an 8-day trip. Nick would pick me up at my hotel in Bangkok at 5 a.m. the morning after arriving from Bhutan. The plan: the first few days with Nick, we'd visit the Gulf of Thailand where salt and fresh water mingle, divided by berms into shallow, muddy ponds and shrimp farms; then we'd visit coastal beaches, agricultural fields, and other habitats. My time with Nick would culminate with three days exploring Kaeng Krachan National Park, a tropical rainforest chock full o'birds. We'd then head back to Bangkok where I'd be dropped off at the same hotel and picked up the next morning by Nick's sub-guides Ralph (another Brit) and his wife Nit (Thai native). Off we'd go in a different direction, birding in another tropical rainforest national park (Khao Yai) and various spots along the way, winding up at the Bangkok airport the evening I get on the flight home. Pretty much most of my time in Thailand would be spent birding. Let's do it!

Birding, Thailand, 2016
Our Bhutan group arrived in Bangkok late afternoon, stuffed to the gills with good memories of a fantastic trip, tired, and pretty much ready to go home. Most of the troupe had about 24 hours layover before getting on a 9 p.m. flight back to the states (Norris and Eric, like me, extended their trip, but for a side venture to Cambodia's Angkor Wat). That left me with about ten hours before my birding adventure would start. I had to laugh at myself for thinking I'd be fresh and ready for eight solid days of birding after nearly two weeks in the Himalaya when I planned this trip six months prior. What the heck, though. You only go around once. Now it was time to get some sleep!

As shown in my Bhutan entries, the Hotel Mariya in Bangkok,
a sweet and comfortable place
I was the only person in the quiet hotel lobby at 4:45 the next morning. Looking out the window as sunrise woke up the bustling city of Bangkok, I sipped Nescafe and munched on a granola bar. Headlights from an approaching mid-sized truck shone through the glass window. Could that be Nick? I peered through the window, lifting my binoculars off my neck and waving them questioningly. He nodded, got out of his truck, and came into the lobby. Introducing himself, we sat down for a bit while I finished my coffee, and he went through the day's schedule.

Little did I know that this image of my first approach to Bangkok was the very
place where we'd find our Spoon-billed Sandpiper
First things first. Get that Spoon-billed. We'd first drive to Pak Thale, the nearby complex of saltpans, shrimp farms, and mudflats in the Gulf of Thailand, and search through hundreds of thousands of wading shorebirds for the few Spoon-billeds that hang out there. Species of sandpipers, plovers, greenshanks, storks, gulls, and more will also be identified. We hoped to get the Spoon-billed right away before the heat and humidity of the day sets in and makes that area unbearable. Then, Nick said, we'd be off to see Mr. Daeng. OK, I said (thinking hmmm...Mr. Daeng. Who dat?). Let's go, he said, hauling my bags out to the truck; we need to beat the Bangkok traffic.

Outside of bustling Bangkok, sometimes traffic has legs 
Just a building in the Thai countryside.
In earlier entries about my Bhutan journey, I think I touched upon how I prefer not being cold. Quite certain I made that point. In Thailand now, post-Bhutan, I was actually looking forward to being hot. I couldn't wait to relish the sun and heat. As we approached the brackish mudflats and shrimp farms, I was indeed smiling at the thought of basking in the sun's glow. Holy crap, that lasted about 10 seconds. It was HOT. The kind of sticky hot gnats and flies love. The kind of hot that melts lead. I made a mental note to never let my Bhutan travel companions know I only lasted about 20 minutes in the searing heat before I wished I was...yes, just say it...colder. I found out later, on their day trip to Bangkok's Grand Palace, in the midst of them wilting in the heat, they would all wonder if I was finally happy. Oh, the irony; if only they knew the heat was just as shocking to me as it was to them.

Nick had scoped out this area the day before to look for the Spoon-billed, and had found four of them in one particular pond. He drove straight there with me, and we were fortunate to find two of them pretty much right away. Excellent views, as well. "So this is a bird of interest to birders, eh?" I naively asked. "Uh, you could say that," said Nick, respectful and kind. I hadn't realized the rarity of this bird, its associated conservation efforts due to that rarity, and how desirable it was for birders to see it. From the Audubon Society:

Last year there were only 100 pairs left, and maybe 100 juveniles. The annual drop of breeding-age adults has been a heart-stopping 26 percent, with extinction looming in as little as five years—a result, experts believe, of hunting and trapping on the wintering grounds.

Image from BSCP, Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
BSCP's Facebook Page
This is one rare bird. Out of the scads of shorebirds we were seeing, we only saw two Spoon-billed Sandpipers. But boy, we had great views, and more importantly, one more biologist (me) is aware of this species and can advocate for it's protection. Now you can too.

John Gerrard Keuleman lithograph from 1869
Spoon-billed Sandpiper, breeding plumage
According to Nick, Pak Thale in the Gulf of Thailand was one of the best places in the world to see massive quantities of shorebirds. In many cases, there are minute differences one can barely observe between many species. So imagine little white-with-beige-and-black-markings birds filling your vision completely, heat waves making them shaky, and trying with all your might to find a specific bird Nick is pointing out that's different than the rest. It's like trying to pick out one black stripe on one zebra in a moving herd of them. But boy, Nick was excellent. And patient.

Grey-headed Lapwing
Little Ringed Plover
Going from pond to pond, we racked up the species count.

Chinese Egret

Wood Sandpiper

Black-winged Stilt
We met a Swedish birder, whose non-birding (obviously!) family members dropped him off in this searing wasteland so he could look for the Spoon-billed. We made our way back to where we had seen our original two to show him, hoping they were still there. Nearing our spot, we walked by a little wood shack; it created the only shade within 20 miles. Walking around one side to get to the shade, we stopped short, as there was a couple who had claimed the shade, sitting smartly in folding chairs, spotting scope set up for close-up views of birds. More birders!

Wow! thought I, taking a closer peek:

Nick, speaking Thai, conversed with the couple. I noticed the husband had some pencils and a sketchbook in hand, drawing casually. Another journal was nearby and open, showing full-color images that were stunning. A bit impressionistic with swirls of color, but also true to the birds themselves. They were remarkable.

I couldn't help but exclaim at this beautiful artistry with clear awe in my voice. Nick translated, and the gentleman smiled while I gushed over his artwork. He handed me his journal, and I took it gingerly, not wanting to be responsible for any damage. Leafing through the pages, I marveled at his extraordinary talent. We chatted a bit via Nick, took some photos, and managed to find those Spoon-billeds for our Swede, much to his glee.

Me and artist Kamol Komolphalin, just hangin' out at some mudflats
As we walked away, Nick asked if I knew who that artist was. No clue, of course. Well, continues Nick, that was Kamol Komolphalin, the artist for the first book of the birds of Thailand (sort of like the Roger Tory Peterson of Thailand). What? Yup. I had walked up on one of the foremost Thai bird artists, browsed through his journal, took some photos, and said buh-bye, walking off not knowing whom I had met. Here are some of his images from cards I bought at my subsequent national park visits:

I love how his field notes are kept as part of the full image
Decidedly wilted and ready to crank some AC in the vehicle, we loaded up. Nick looked at me and said "off to Mr. Daeng." Through the countryside we drove.

So who is Mr. Daeng? That, readers, will be answered next.

Birdwatch...ahem, well, maybe not. Aravaipa Canyon, AZ, ca. 2006

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure Act VI

For Acts I - V, click on the
"Bhutan & Thailand" tab above

Act VI:
To the Victors Go the Spoils
...and the Shopping

"Monkeys!!! Stop!!!" Becky called out excitedly, shattering our individual reveries as we gazed out the van windows after leaving the Phojokha valley cranes and community behind. Tin-Tin braked, popped open the door, and we all practically fell over each other to get out, looking like circus clowns exiting a mini-Coop.

There was really no need to rush, though. Several gray langurs were hanging out in some trees next to the road, calmly looking at us like we were the freaky things, not them. Ah, perspective. We all need it sometime.

We stared at them, enthralled. They stared at us, bored.

Gray langurs are fairly common in the temperate Himalaya forest, and are a part of the Colobinae subfamily of Old World monkeys that inhabit much of southern Asia. One of several species of langurs, they form "troops" of dominant males, bachelor males, and families. There are actually eight species of gray langurs, as well as numerous other species of langurs, and they can be fascinating when they're not causing trouble like monkeys do when they're around humans who leave coolers, car windows, or purses open.

We soaked in the scene (monkeys in trees! we're not at a zoo!), snapped pictures, and climbed back in the van. We had a long drive ahead of us and a stop or two to make before arriving at our last destination, Thimphu, Bhutan's capital and the final leg of our amazing Bhutan journey.

Scenic view en route to Pele La
One of our mandatory stops on the way was Pele La, a pass at 11,100' elevation in the mountain range we were crossing. Pele La is mostly a stop at the top of the pass, with religious stupas and prayer flags signifying its value as a crossing point and panoramic view. We had heard about Pele La from Becky, who was eager to return, as there are often weavers and artists set up to take advantage of the perfect location for a leg-stretching break by tourists. After seeing what Becky had found at Pele La her first go-round, we were looking forward to it as well.

Pele La did not disappoint. Artists showcased woven yak wool shawls, silk and cotton scarves, and bags; metal trinkets like wind chimes and yak bells; knitted slippers--pretty much everything except hats and gloves. I still wasn't finding any hats or gloves to replace my lost ones; what's the deal with people who live high in the Himalaya but don't have hats or gloves?

Pele La pass; slurped from Google...

A loom used by a weaver in between sales

Slippers. No hat, not even one glove.
We shopped, talked with the sellers about their crafts, and bought keepsakes for ourselves or for gifts. Then, back in the van to face the last three days in Bhutan.

On the "road" again...
We felt victorious about our trip thus far--we climbed (and climbed...) to the country's signature Tiger's Nest monastery and broke our mental and physical barriers while hiking to Laya. We've danced with cranes and trekked with ponies. We've shared butter tea with monks and stayed warm with savory dahl (lentil stew) under the stars. We've been awestruck in temples that were simultaneously breathtakingly grand yet peacefully humble and we've crossed suspension bridges and mountain passes that left us speechless. We've traveled on precarious roads and steep trails, not knowing when, or if, they'd ever end.

Approaching Thimphu
The "16 Friends." The statue behind commemorates the Four Friends
iconic story of an elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird working together
to enjoy the fruits of a tree. 
And now it was time. Time to relax. Time to stay in a warm hotel and sleep under clean sheets. Time to get those souvenirs. After all, our consumerism can't help but bubble up when markets and shops appear before our very eyes.

Our hotel in Thimphu
We were going to spend our last days in Bhutan in its capital city of Thimphu (tim-poo), basically doing whatever struck our fancy. Thimphu, up through the 1950's, was a north-south valley strung with a series of hamlets. Modernization efforts of the Wangchuck dynasty changed not only the political, cultural, and administrative life of Bhutan, but its capital as well. Shifting from the ancient city of Punakha to Thimphu starting in the early 1950's, this change was finalized in 1961. The Thimphu valley's fortress-monastery (dzong, remember?), Tashichho Dzong, built in the 17th century, now acts as the seat of Bhutan's government.

Tashichho Dzong, from a distance
It's actually huge
Now for some statistics: Thimphu is the third-highest capital city in the world. Ranging from about 7,300' to 8,600' elevation (only slightly higher than my home in the Arizona mountains), Thimphu's climate is a counter-intuitive warm, temperate one due to receiving the humid, almost tropical moisture moving north from India's monsoon season. Snow does happen, but quick melting does too.

Typical street
Thimphu is also one of only two capital cities in the world that do not have a single traffic light (the other? Ngerulmud, Palau). Well, city officials DID install a traffic light, but it was removed even before it was turned on. Instead, Bhutanese citizens prefer, and are quite proud of, traffic cops in pavilion-style booths at main intersections directing traffic with white-gloved, exaggerated hand gestures.

Took this little movie:

We had our choice of several activities, and Ugyen, Tin-Tin, and Phuntsho were happy to show us around. We organized ourselves into groups based upon who wanted to do what, and headed out to enjoy life in Thimphu.

Markets, selling everything from jewelry to prayer wheels, were within walking distance of our hotel. Becky knew where high-quality weavings could be found. Norris knew where we could pick up some red rice or spices to take home. Shopping awaited, let's go!

Image-slurps, thank you, Google. I think I was tired of taking pictures by this time.

Market items

Food market across the street
Some of my finds:

One of my creations with Bhutan beads!
There were also highlights such as the Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue built in the early 2000's on a hill overlooking Thimphu to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the fourth Wangchuck king. It is a can't-miss visual "whoa!" over the Thimphu valley, measuring nearly 170 feet height, and one of the largest Buddhas in the world. The Buddha statue and associated interior temple and exterior plaza house over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which are, like the Dordenma itself, made of bronze and gilded in gold.

Buddha Dordenma gracing the city of Thimphu
Up close; Sherrie, me, Lynn

 We crawled around Thimphu for a couple days. Fun stops included the city's post office (great shop; stamps, Bhutanese goods, and wonderful books); coffee shops, grocery stores (the biggest bay leaves you ever saw are in our kitchen pantry now), another chorta (religious site), and, best of all, a favorite weaving store where Becky had been on her first trip--where she became friends with the mother and daughter who owned the shop and did much of the weaving. It was a special place, and it was difficult to not want to take everything home with me, including the owners!!!

Artistry in action:

A hike to a scenic overlook thick with prayer flags helped us see the geography of the Thimphu valley and our next stop--a takin preserve. The takin (tock-in; briefed in my own Act I) is Bhutan's national mammal, and appears to be a blend of cow, goat, and antelope. While numbers in the wild are presumed to be stable, they are rare and have been pushed out of valleys undergoing rapid development. In the Thimphu valley, takins were rescued and placed in a sort of "mini-zoo" in one of the last forested areas in the lower Thimphu valley. Story goes that one of the Kings felt it improper for a Buddhist country to confine animals--so he ordered the release of these zoo takins, which were let go in the Thimphu valley. These animals, now almost domesticated after zoo life, rarely left the immediate zoo area, except there were reports of stray takins roaming Thimphu's streets in search of food. Officials went back to the drawing board and created the near-9 acre forested Motithang preserve, which houses a dozen or so takins and other rarely-seen animals.

Regardless of where we ventured during the daytime, we'd all gather for dinner. We couldn't wait to hear everyone's stories of their day. Our first big city dinner was one that had us drooling for three days prior when we heard the plan; The Seasons: Italian pizza, salads, and pasta. Most of us wanted, and ate, all three.

Never was a salad so welcome

...or pizza for that matter

A special spot was the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts, a training academy for students preparing for a career in one or more of Bhutan's 13 "traditional" arts (painting, carpentry, wood carving, sculpture, casting, metal work, bamboo carving, gold and silver work, weaving, embroidery, masonry, leatherwork, and paper making). Students were focused on their projects as we wandered in and out of classrooms. You'd think that would be unnerving, but they seemed to be used to people sticking their cameras into their workspace.

After a whirlwind of bouncing from shrines to shops, our last evening's dinner was truly the culmination of our entire trip. Our wonderful guides invited us to one of their family's apartments for a buffet spread of Bhutanese fare. We were grateful for the opportunity to slow things down a bit and finally enjoy socializing with these new friends who had spent so much time catering to our daily needs. We also deeply appreciated that when you combine the host families and our 12-member group, a dinner for over 20 people was not a simple thing to pull off. This wasn't a dinner, this was an event.

A full, traditional Bhutan meal; yak meat, dahl, milk tea, red rice, yak cheese; it was all there! 

The kids sang these sweet songs--not a dry eye in the house

Ugyen and his family!

It is hard to put into words the meaning of our last night together. Speeches were made, songs were sung, tears rolled down cheeks, and hugs were plentiful. All of us carefully tucked this new treasure of an experience into our hearts, to live there forever. This amazing journey took us to the depths of pure exhaustion to the heights of unadulterated exhilaration. The best part was the human connections made between two different worlds, the thread that tied everything together. Buddha knew what he was doing.

Back in Bangkok, some of us took advantage of being halfway around the world to see a few more sights, me included. By 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I was off on yet another adventure--eight days traipsing around the Thailand countryside in leech socks, in search of birds. Stay tuned!

Farewell, Bhutan