We recently had a long weekend and wanted to take the opportunity to visit our friends in Bangkok. They are stark reminders that things are far from normal in Myanmar as they both work for NGOs that cannot operate effectively in the country. Like many they left the country at around the same time we did but unlike us, have never returned.
There was a staff party the night before so instead of leaving on Friday night we left on Saturday morning first thing. Lindsey’s series of airport meltdowns went like this. Firstly, there was a big queue to go through the security check on the road just outside the airport so we would definitely miss the plane – meltdown number 1. Then there was a huge queue for the bag security check to let you actually get into the airport – meltdown number 2. While Lindsey joined this queue I went and parked the car but somehow, in the minuscule amount of time it took me to park the car and come to the airport Lindsey had managed not only to get into the airport but somehow get to the front of the queue at the check in desk but now I wasn’t there – meltdown number 3. Sometimes, once we get through to the gates, I think that the meltdowns have come to an end but then I forget that there is still the landing meltdowns to come – getting a cab etc. oh well….
We met up with our friends and started on our way to our weekend getaway which should have been a couple of hours from Bangkok. However, a birder friend of mine had given me the location of a spot that pretty reliably has Spoon-billed Sandpipers on the way. This just happens to be one of the rarest birds in the world with the number of pairs estimated at around 200 left in the world. The directions were to a salt flat and then ‘walk along until you come to this big urn. They hangout around there.’ Sure enough we found the spot and immediately spotted a likely looking urn. There were lots of wading birds there and two other birders one of whom had a camera about the size of a bazooka. The spoonbill is remarkable not only for its rarity but also its bill which is spoon shaped at the end. I think there was only one or two of these birds there although I cannot claim to have gotten a very good view. I did however get some poor photos to prove it though and we all saw it so in the end was very happy.
We then drove on to our destination which was this quirky place where all the rooms were built as if they were cabins on boats. The place looked very much as if Covid had not been too kind to it but instead of fixing the things that need fixing the place seemed hell bent on building new things which were all in varying degrees of readiness. There was a deck with a great view of the lake where the place was situated which was a lovely spot for having a beer and taking in the view (mainly of birds for me). That evening I was particularly proud of this shot of an owl which landed quite close to us for a few seconds. I knew the settings I had to change quickly in order to take a good enough photo to be able to later identify the bird which has the rather amusing name Brown Boobook. Annoyingly, I had seen it before in India though so NOT a lifer.
The next morning was given over to birding. One of our friends is also a birder (though not up to my levels of crazy), and the other two joined along and were good sports all morning. The only downside to the morning was our rather average guide organized by the hotel but to be fair he did help me spot quite a few lifers and get me some good opportunities to get a few videos including this rather pretty owl, an Asian Barred Owlet. When we arrived there were lots of birders camping there and literally as we pulled in a pair of very pretty barbets showed up and hung around while all the huge cameras gunned them down. We also saw some dusky leaf monkeys including a baby which are bright orange unlike the adults which are a dull charcoal colour.
That evening we arranged for a boat ride on the lake which was lovely made even more so by the forethought of our friends who had brought a whole ice box full of goodies. We outdid them though with our own contribution – a bottle of our favourite ‘Shan pagne’. On the Monday morning we drove to a large and rather shaky footbridge and had a walk around the island that it connected to before heading back to Bangkok and facing the rather terrible traffic there.
Since that trip I went back to Bangkok one time for a two day conference my boss was speaking at. I arrived at the hotel at around 9pm but didn’t feel like going to bed so went out to see if I could find the sports bar I had passed in the cab on the way in. Upon coming out of the hotel I was immediately greeted by a number of bars all with women (presumably ‘freelancers’) sitting on stools outside the bar. I hate this aspect of Thailand in general and headed to my sports bar only to discover after I entered that it wasn’t much different. I sat at the bar where there were several TV screens showing football games from the day before, ordered my beer and stoically watched the screens being careful not to catch anyone’s eye. Initially I thought I’d just have one beer but actually got sucked in to the football game as there were two screens playing the same game 45 minutes apart. As the later version showed the score as 3 – 0 and the earlier version 0 – 0, I knew it was going to be a good game.
Eventually, the bar lady (presumably not a freelancer) tried to engage me in some conversation and then ended up calling over one of the ladies. To be fair to her she was not in any way pushy and had not approached me at all up until then. She even said something along the lines of ‘hey no big deal, I can see your on your own and I just came over to say hi’. To be fair to her, here I am a 50 something bloke on my own in that bar… still not my favourite thing to experience.
My birding friend had told me about this amazing park near my hotel where they have supposedly built a wetland right in the middle of the city. I headed over there on both days of the conference before breakfast and was totally amazed. They have done an incredibly good job and there were tonnes of birds there including an Asian Openbill and a Little Grebe among others. On one of the days I had an errand to run which was dropping off a load of Myanmar coffee that our friends like at their apartment building. The problem was the traffic at the time I needed to run the errand was really bad. A cab had already refused to take me there so I was just contemplating what to do when a motorbike taxi dropped off a customer right next to me. Without thinking I walked over and showed him where I wanted to go. No helmet, no problem, we were off! The wing mirrors were placed in such a way that the handlebars were the widest point of the vehicle. That meant he was able to effectively judge the gaps and boy did he make some that I never would have considered in a million years. Daily risk in Asia is at a totally different level than in the US and Europe. Mostly that doesn’t effect your daily life but this was one example. I felt pretty pleased with myself until I was chatting with a delegate at the conference who lived in Bangkok. She told me that not only had she come that day on a taxi bike with no helmet but that she had also rode side-saddle!!
The only other thing to mention was the restaurant I went to without any freelancers called ‘The Smoking Pug’. This is like you stepped straight into a restaurant in America serving pulled pork sandwiches and the like. Even the service was American – a great meal and great beer. We don’t love Bangkok and would never want to live there but I have to say that over our time here it has grown on us a little.
Well, being prone to travel-related meltdowns myself, I can sympathize with Lindsey! I had no idea a spoon-billed sandpiper even existed — I’ve seen roseate spoonbills in Florida with a similar bill, but much larger than a sandpiper. (I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of them, as they’re pretty common.) I wonder if they’re related? Great shot of the boobook!