The country of Laos means many things to many people. Some ruefully
remark that it is one of the last socialist republics on Planet Earth, others rightfully
point out that it is the only landlocked country in South East Asia. To scientists, it is a
treasure trove of new discoveries, while others bemoan the lack of infrastructure and
widespread hunting of its biodiversity. To a certain extent, all of the above is true, but
in order to truly experience what this country has to offer, one has to get right into the
heart of the country, and there is certainly more than meets the eye.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (pronounced LAO, emphasis mine) is
indeed a landlocked socialist republic ruled by the communist Pathet Lao since 1975.
In recent years, the lifting of various economic and social restrictions, combined with
a normalisation of economic ties with the USA in 2005, have done much to increase
visitor numbers into the country, most opting to visit the city of Luang Prabang, a
World Heritage listed site. An increasing number of visitors have also attempted to
gain access to the large tracts of natural habitat that have remained largely intact
due to unexploded ordnance from the Civil War, and the closed nature of its
economy that has largely prevented exploitation from foreign companies.
For birders, Laos has been largely under the radar due to a general lack of
information and perceived “large scale” hunting of biodiversity with images of lifeless
forests and a low species count. All this changed however with the discovery of the
Bare-faced Bulbul (P.hualon), a country endemic & localised resident of wooded
limestone outcrops, near the accessible village of Na Hin on the eastern end of the
country. Within months, blogs and reports detailing the visits of intrepid westerners
graced the Internet, with more groups planned for the future.
Personally, the trip materialised as a result of an invitation from Ashley
Banwell to join a birding team assembled from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The
Bulbul, ironically, was less of an attraction to me as the thought of trail-blazing a
country with so little information that one would constantly be birding with the thought
of expecting the unexpected around every corner, and so it was this sense of
expectation and intrigue that accompanied me aboard the plane bound for Bangkok.
A detailed itinerary of the Laos leg of the trip is outlined below.
Late arrival in Vientiane after an afternoon flight from Singapore to Bangkok to
catch an onward flight from Bangkok to Vientiane. Overnight in the very comfortable
Orchid Hotel Vientiane, tucked away in the maze of streets that characterises the
A comparatively early pre-dawn start for the 5 hour drive to the outskirts of Na
Hin, heading north for a bit before turning east along Route 8. Late AM birding along
the stretch of road between the KM 31 & KM 35 signpost along Route 8, before
travelling onwards to the Sainamhai Resort on the outskirts of Na Hin, our home for
the next 3 nights, for lunch. PM spent along the woodcutter’s trail at KM 48 above Na
Hin to about 680m ASL. Thereafter, a brief nocturnal foray along a logging road
about 2km below the forementioned trail. Overnight in Sainamhai Resort.
AM spent along the road between KM 31 & KM 35 again, with a foray into the
trail at KM 35. Mid-morning birding along the “National Park” trail behind the temple
at Na Hin. PM very poor birding along the busy Route 8 between KM 48 & KM 52
heading out of Na Hin. Last light spent along the logging road created by a Vietnam
HEP company about 1.5-2km down the road towards Na Hin from the KM 48
woodcutter’s trail. Overnight Sainamhai Resort.
AM deep push into the KM 48 woodcutter’s trail, reaching excellent primary
hill forest before going down a steep hillside surrounded by excellent slope forest
and into riverine closed forests interspaced by seasonal riverbeds at lower
elevations. PM the team split up with yours truly revisiting this forest alone. Late PM
owling along the “National Park” trail. Overnight Sainamhai Resort, where a big party
was being thrown to celebrate the Laotian & Italian National Day. It is surprising how
many Italians work around Na Hin!
Full morning in Na Hin, returning to the excellent forest beyond KM 48. PM 5
hr drive back to Vientiane, where preparations were being made for the inaugural
hosting of the South East Asian Games, due to start shortly after our departure.
Overnight in Orchid Hotel Vientiane.
A non-birding travel day. In order to reach Chiang Mai we had to take a flight
from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in order to board the connecting flight across the
border. We lounged around Luang Prabang for a few hours, a big tourist trap with
tenacious touts, hawkers and beggars and a poor experience overall. Laotian leg
Logistics & Guiding:
The trip was organized via Stijn De Win of www.birding2asia.com , famous for
his independent discovery of the Bulbuls at Na Hin. Stijn is an easygoing bird guide
who effectively runs a one-man show utilising his own contacts on the ground in
Laos. He speaks basic Lao and had recordings of all of the known specialties of Na
Hin. However, as his prior visits to the area had largely been short trips, our group
managed to add several species to his ever-expanding area list. For more
information on the services he provides, visit the aforementioned website. Later on in
the report, I will be utilising his sketch-map of the Na Hin area to point out notable
birding areas. The tour cost paid was a full-board price which included the flight from
Vientiane to Chiang Mai. As is the norm with my trip reports, I will not be listing the
tour cost. Please direct your queries directly to Stijn.
With regard to getting into Laos, Bangkok appears to be the most popular
embarkation point, rightfully serving its purpose as a gateway to Indochina. There
are, however, various hubs from Cambodia & Vietnam which connect to Vientiane.
For a full listing, please visit www.laoairlines.com. This is also where you can make
online bookings for your plane tickets into the country. Accurate as of this trip report,
Lao Airlines is the only carrier that flies into Vientiane and flights are paid for in USD.
Online bookings were trouble-free and efficient and neither of us experienced any
problems whatsoever while using this service.
Environment & People:
Large tracts of pristine natural habitat still exist in Laos, a rarity in the rapidly
modernising landscape of South East Asia. This is largely due to the closed nature of
its economy and how the Vietnam War & civil war that followed devastated the
country and left stockpiles of unexploded bombs. A little-known fact is that Laos was,
and likely still is, the most bombed country in the World, with “American Imperialists”
singled out as the main culprits. One of the most poignant impressions I had even
prior to entering Laos was how the in-flight magazine on Lao Airlines, which featured
an article on a museum built in honour of the Lao People’s Army, denounced
America multiple times in a single article for committing genocide. Indeed, there is
historical evidence to indicate that Laos was like a giant bull’s-eye for B-52 Bombers
during the 1960s & 70s that basically razed large areas of the country to the ground.
Historically, most of Laos’s trade has been conducted with its neighbours-
Thailand, Vietnam & China. In another little known fact, the mountainous terrain and
plentiful watercourses allows the country to be one of the premier HEP exporters in
the region. Even the town of Na Hin itself is built around a comparatively small scale
HEP project that appears to be funded by Vietnamese. On a more serious note, this
same company was observed making inroads into the pristine slope forest in the
mountains surrounding Na Hin.
Naturalists have often been quick to condemn the Laotian people for their
instinctive desire to pillage the biodiversity from their wilderness areas. Indeed,
evidence of hunting in the forest was omnipresent around Na Hin with balls of
feathers and evidence of campfires a feature of most trails we visited. On one
occasion, young children with catapults followed us briefly into the forest trying to
shoot birds drawn in by our playback and had to be shouted at. Therein lies the
paradox that plagues wildlife conservation in such countries. With almost 50% of the
population living below the poverty line and a reliance on subsistence agriculture,
their only source of protein lies in a forest where mammalian signs are virtually nonexistent.
Birds are therefore logical targets. What little livestock these people own is
better off alive then dead to the locals. Ultimately, it is going to take more than
education to stop the hunting and eco-tourism is still an unknown concept to locals
so there is still a long-way to go. While I personally don’t encourage it, foreigners do
indeed need to see for themselves the sort of conditions most of the rural population
live in to understand why they do what they do.
Thankfully, a lot of habitat in Laos is largely inaccessible with the limestone
karst formations at Na Hin a perfect example of being one of the few areas with a
road that cuts through the boundaries of these otherwise inaccessible karst habitats.
It is little wonder how this Bulbul escaped science for so long when one stands on
the KM 31.5 viewpoint near Na Hin where inaccessible wooded karsts extend for as
far as the eye can see.
To add to the background of Na Hin, it is situated in the KhammouanProvince,
one of the sixteen administrative provinces in the country and borders Central
Annam (Vietnam) to the east. The mountains of the Annamite Chain, which extend
into Vietnam, feature prominently throughout the area, resulting in spectacular
natural scenery at various sites.
From a birding perspective, first light in Laos is at 6am in the morning. In
December, temperatures and humidity rise very quickly and by 9am the birding
slows down to a crawl. As others have pointed out, the birding never picks up in the
afternoon and it was often difficult to motivate one-self to head out into the field again.
For best results, utilise the period between 6am-9am as effectively as possible and
don’t look back. Temperatures are very pleasant, almost chilly at times in Na Hin
after the Sun sets and mist can be observed in the hills around Na Hin early in the
morning. Dusk comes at 6pm and owls can usually be heard by 7pm. December
appears to be a poor time to visit the country as resident birds are generally quiet
and migrants of any sort were thin on the ground. The rainy season is between May
to November and some speculate that March & April may in fact be the prime birding
times. We did not encounter any leeches or other “nasties” in the forests around Na
Hin although mosquitoes were present at dusk. The resort provided mosquito nets
although long sleeves are recommend. Expect leeches at other times of year where
rainfall occurs, as we did not encounter any rain during our time there.
A word of thanks goes out to Stijn De Win for competently leading the trip and
ensuring it ran smoothly. Thanks also to Ashley, Neil & Carlton for companionship
throughout the length of the tour. Finally, mention must also be made of the
“barefacedbirders” John Gregory & Pete Antrobus (barefacedbirders.blogspot.com)
and Dave Gandy (electricbirding.blogspot.com) for publishing their findings on these
blogs which served as important background information for our trip.
Summaries for each site are outlined below in chronological order as we
visited them. Not all species for each site are documented with attention being given
primarily to perceived target species or noteworthy sightings. For ease of reference,
visit http://www.birding2asia.com/W2W/Laos/NaHin.html and use this trip report in
tandem with the map on the aforementioned page to get the most out of the data. As
a sort of baseline to gauge the success of any future trips, our foray into Laos
yielded 94 species over 4 days in the area around Na Hin, of which only 4 were new
for me. Admittedly the cost-lifer ratio was abysmal, probably my worst in Asia so far,
but at the end of the day, it was a big twitch for a very dull bird.
N.B.: I am aware of inconsistencies between some of my landmarks, notably marker
posts, and those listed on the above website. I am sticking to my field notes
nevertheless and so any errors that future observers bring up will be mine alone.
Most trails are pretty obvious and easily found while the “famous” viewpoint is the
only one for miles around and cannot be missed if you are on the right road.
Site A: Roadside Limestone Karst Forest (KM 31-KM 35)
-Labelled  on Map