Hornbills of Thailand


Khao Yai Brown Hornbill

Austen’s Brown Hornbill PC – Sandipan Sarkar

Jungle is not my Domain

Jungle is not my domain while Thailand is. Thailand to me is probably one of the most beautiful countries provided you avoid Bangkok and Pattaya. writing about a jungle trip and a search for Hornbill is also not my genre. However, after this trip to Khao Yai and spent over two days in search of a brown hornbill changed my life forever.
Having stayed in the country during 2007-2008, I visited most of the sea beaches around the eastern seabeds and the south. I was fortunate to have lived in the picturesque Sriracha in the Chonburi district. As I was living alone, weekends were extremely boring for me. I started wandering around and going to places which were (then) unknown to many. Although Sriracha was near to Pattaya, I never really liked the place mostly for the Indian crowds. I hated noisy places and categorically avoided them.

My days in Thailand

I still remember going to Kanchanaburi and staying on a floating cottage on the River Kwai. Kanchanaburi was yet to be developed at that time as a tourist destination. I remember discovering Koh Samet in one of my solo trips. Koh Samet was followed by trips to isolated islands like Koh Kut, Koh Bulon Lae, Koh Lipe. Since then, I had fallen in love with this place.
Quite obviously when we (team Hanglaatherium) started planning a trip to Thailand, I was circling around the same old Koh Samet or Koh Phi Phi and then Sandipan suggested a trip to Khao Yai National Park.

Khao Yai National Park Thailand

Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai National Park

A National Park in Thailand? – Obviously it was never my domain however, I really never heard of the place in over 50 trips to the country. Jungle as such was never a domain for me for many reasons. My first visit to the jungle was way back in 1989 to Corbett National Park. After that, I had been to a few of the National Parks around Tanzania and Nairobi. But Khao Yai will remain very special to me. Perhaps this was my first real jungle visit. I think to visit a jungle you need a person who knows the jungle. Sandipan is one person who not only knows jungle but he has deep knowledge of its flora and fauna. Truly speaking it is his company and his passion for birding that made the trip memorable.

Our Team with Jay and Intira

Team with Jay and Intira

Intira, Jay and Sandipan

The whole plan was chalked out well in advance by Sandipan with Intira and Jay. Intira and Jay, a naturalist couple who runs a tour company I could never really refer them as mere guides. They were the lifeline of our trip. Sandipan when handed them over a piece of paper with his long wishlist, instead of being worried, I could sense an amount of added energy in them. It was like a great chef met a real foodie. And what followed then after was an amazing chase to fulfil that wishlist.
We reached Khao Yai by evening from Bangkok. My all-time favourite driver Bird was there with his large Van at the airport. With Bird, trips are never boring. Bangkok to Khao Yai took us around 4 hours.
The small town sleeps early, so we had to cut short our planning session with Jay and Intira and went out for dinner. I could imagine when Sandipan said it was a sleepless night for him as even I was getting a bit excited anticipating a meeting with the Brown Hornbill. Not sure how much I slept that night but I remember waking up among the sound of thousands of birds around the Khaoyai Ban Saraanya, a small resort which was more like a homestay cottage.
We started early but still got 15 minutes delayed. in a jungle safari, 15 minutes delay often become a reason for huge disappointment as you may miss your most anticipated bird or an animal. But we were lucky as our trip started by spotting Sandipan’s dream bird, the brown hornbill.

Oriental Pied Hornbill Khao Yai

Oriental Pied Hornbill PC Sandipan Sarkar

Sighting the Brown Hornbill

Hornbill as Sandipan already briefed the team are mostly monogamous in nature, unlike human. Even though they live in groups, once paired they remain dedicated to their partner for the rest of their lives. It seems that they don’t pair with others if one of them dies early. I realised something more exciting in a while. We had a small break at the information centre and unfortunately, I had an official call to attend. Paradoxes of life when in the middle of a jungle you need to attend a business call.
So the rest of the team proceed to the jungle, while I waited at the Information centre. That was the only place with a sign of civilization if wifi is considered to be a part of civilization. After finishing the call, I walked down the dense forest over a small walking trail. Finally, after walking half a mile, I found our team hiding behind a large tree and inside something that resembles a tent, rather a half tent.

The snipers and the camera

They hide behind an opaque wall

Life of a Sniper behind the camera

It was almost an invisible opaque wall behind which the photographers hide like snipers. The anticipation to click the Hornbill was no lesser than a sniper waiting to take his shot. I was quite confused and my curiosity rose to an extreme high mixed with a little frustration as I found Simba, my son also hiding with a binocular and like a sniper eyeing for something which was invisible in naked eyes.
Thankfully Jay looking at my pure restlessness, came with her binocular and what I found out was absolutely thrilling.

The kiss of a lifetime

Far above the trees in the dense forest, on top of a palm tree, was a big whole. A typical next formed by either a woodpecker or a barbet. That was the temporary home for a great Hornbill couple. The lady is pregnant and waiting inside the nest while the man of the family went out to get food for his beloved. What happened next was no less than “tujhe dekha hay to jana sanam“- moment.

Simba as sniper

Simba following his Kakababu

The man came with food grains in his long mouth. The presence of him around the hole made our queen glimpsed out of the window and allowed her lips came out and the man put his lips in her. Well more than romance, the care was visible to all. For that moment, both I and Simba watch a perfect kiss without any hesitation.
Sandipan told us about this also. Even the hornbills live in groups, but during pregnancy, the lady normally becomes extremely protective about her health and till the birth of the child, they don’t allow others to feed her. On the contrary, during this phase, the only man to feed the lady is the Man of her life. Our pilgrimage to Brown Hornbill was complete after watching the man brought water and helped his queen drink.
We stayed at that spot for over 2 hours till Sandipan got all the shots he wanted. For a photographer, “satisfactory shot” is an absurd phrase. But he had not much choices left but to get satisfied as we started our quest for the white-handed gibbons. Another rare find at the Khao Yai.

White Handed Gibbons

White-Handed Gibbons PC Sandipan Sarakar

The White-Handed Gibbon

While walking down the trails, Sandipan shared fascinating stories about different types of hornbills, their nature and places where they were seen. Like another one million Bengalis, I too started planning my next few trips by the time we heard a “kuk kuk kuk”… it was the call of the gibbons.
The journey for the gibbons was far more intriguing as we almost got lost in the jungle while following a call. The long tail jumbo Malayan Squirrel suddenly appeared and made us spent a good half an hour showing he is no lesser than other famous personalities in the jungle. But even with its majestic dramabazi, the Giant Squirrel disappeared quickly when we suddenly met a The Asian Forest Scorpion.

The meeting with the Scorpion

A Big black Scorpion was crossing the road when our driver spotted and stopped the car. What followed was probably the most adventurous incident of our day-long jungle safari. Our driver Mu grabbed the scorpion from behind and picked it up within his palm.

Scorpion appeared in the middle of the road

Asian Forrest Scorpion

The Ruthless Father was silenced

Then he placed it upon his forearm and allowed the creature to move around in peace over his forearm. The Felu Mittir inside me was almost trembling when Simba, quite characteristically asked my permission to do the same. I am normally a stone-hearted father who allowed his son to watch Batman over his boring textbooks or go for a football match than attending a history test. I am also ruthless who allowed his 1-year-old son to swim alone in the sea. But somehow that Mandar Bose mindset didn’t work well this time. So I somehow pacified him by granting his wish partially fulfilled by touching and feeling the scorpion. The partial allowance although was not accepted by the rest of the team. In fact, the other child Subhalakshmi (Sandipan’s wife) by that time also started asking for the same to Sandipan.
“Jungle is not a place for Child’s play”, Sandipan had to use his Barriotone to made the rest of the children including me back to normalcy and we start our trail with a short coffee-break.
Never realised how suddenly the day got over. The flying flock of the tired hornbills made us realised it was time for us to get back to the Information Center.

Lunch with Rambutan

Lunch followed by Rambutan

Lunch and the night trail

We were extremely lucky as the sudden rain and thunder happened just when we got inside a small shelter to grab some lunch. The hot steaming Khao Pat Kai and delectable rambutans made a fabulous combination along with the sound of rain and thunder in that open-air restaurant.
The day was over as the sun sets quite dramatically making the sky turned into a rainbow of colours. But the darkness came quicker than we anticipated. We were asked to re-group and get into different vehicles for the night safari. The vehicles are the typical small vans often found in tourist places around Thailand. The roof was open with handrails to grab. All the vehicles were having a hand manoeuvred searchlight with a specific lumen and colour tone that made the animals visible, however, not disturb them.
Piyali has a Jungle phobia. People who know her are aware of this phobia as that is principally the reason for me to avoid jungle in our regular outings. Her actual phobia is reptiles more than jungle. However, she has this immense faith in Sandipan that she almost sacrificed her life on that day. If the scorpion in the afternoon was a small guest appearance of a famous villain, the original Amrish Puri was waiting for her in the night safari.

Indo-Chinese Water Dragon

Indo-Chinese Water Dragon

What we saw is a mini version of a T- Rex. Sandipan whispered the name is Indo-Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus Cocincinus). I was forcing myself not to pay any attention to Piyali but a glimpse of her face at that moment made me remember the face of Lalmohan Babu after watching Maganlal Meghraj. My father once told me not to make fun of people’s disability. So I controlled my laugh and rather concentrated on the trail.

Meeting with the Porcupine

The meeting with the porcupine was extremely interesting. My first meeting with a porcupine was through Sukumar Ray! Although it was an amalgamation of a porcupine with a duck (Hansjaru) but this animal had always remained in my wishlist. The walk of a porcupine reminded me of Nurul Hassan, the ex-Governor of West Bengal. The porcupine couple was out on their nightly hunt while we followed them over a trail of half a mile. A funny creature is very sensitive to daylight and human.
In fact, a visit to a jungle always made you feel how hated human are. We were never welcomed. And why should we be? We killed almost all of them ruthlessly.

Into the Wild

Into the wild – SimbaHuman the most hated animal in a Jungle

Into the wild

The animals live in harmony and peace while we human made them endangered species for our greed. It was unfortunate to feel most of the species we saw at Khao Yai are nearing extinction unless we sincerely preserve them. The world needs more people like Sandipan who first studies their nature, characteristics and then documents them. Khao Yai is extremely well maintained and I recommend the Gutkha lovers and cigarette-butt throwers to avoid travelling to such places.
There are many other places, for that India is one such broadminded country that allowed its people to go and litre everything. Jhuma loves Bijay or Shamim loves Mirza is written in almost all the pieces of rocks available in any heritage sites in India. The people are too friendly to consider the whole country as their dustbin and throw plastic packets, empty packs of chips or the leftover of your food. Life is not that happy in Khao Yai or for than matter in any jungles around the world. Let jungle remain for bohemians and jungle lovers. People who love nature so much that they consider the whole nature as their own property should categorically avoid travelling to jungles.
Our night safari lasted for almost 2 hours of dark deep suspense. And we all came back to the information centre with Piyali in full consciousness.

The next day trip

The next morning had a surprise for us. We found Piyali cheerfully grabbing some delicious Joke (rice soup) and get into

Night Safari

The Night Safari started

the jeep before anyone of us. I was in my mind thanking Sandipan and almost started planning for a much anticipated Bandhavgarh trip and then I realised it was that state of mind when a woman knows she had to appear before the firing squad. The eternal state of mind Lalmohanbabu had before appearing before the knife tricks of Arjun.
The second day was mostly spent on the search for the white-handed gibbons. Simba took the lead at times which made me a little nervous at times. But when you have an uncle like Kakabu Sandipan, you are bound to become the Santu from Simba.
Our Khao Yai trip was for 2 days. Two days of endless adventure ended too soon. I am sure even Piyali had missed the early morning gearing up with anti-leech protection around the shoes, packing, grabbing a quick breakfast, checking the batteries and more than anything, the smell of the jungle. While we left thanking Jay and Intera for a wonderful trip, I silently pledged to myself to keep the wilderness alive and coming back to the wild once again.

I will come back soon

I will come back soon!

To read more, don’t miss the blog by Dr. Sandipan Sarkar.

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