Planning A Birding Trip To Peninsular Malaysia

I want to make the distinction between Peninsular Malaysia (PM) and the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak which would be a completely different experience.  PM can be a stand-alone birding destination or tagged onto a trip to Thailand and/or Singapore.  The main birding hotspots are easily reached from Kuala Lumpur by bus so we decided to go with public transport and not hire a car.  I was especially pleased with this decision when I saw how many toll booths there were on roads leading out of KL!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independant birders have a lot of resources too.  Have a look at these websites.

Malaysia Birding

Bird Malaysia

Birding In Malaysia

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  We didn’t have a lot of time – just 6 days.  Using the websites referenced above, I decided on these national parks, all of which make for fantastic birding.

Taiping – Long-tailed Parakeets are commonly found in Taiping Lake Gardens.

Cameron Highlands – Beautiful scenery and some cool birds midway between Taiping and Taman Negara.

Taman Negara – Blue-rumped Parrots, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots and much much more!

These parks will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

United Airlines has a fantastic deal on awards between Australia and South-East Asia for 35,000 RT in economy.  Since I had burned so many miles on last year’s Africa trip, the best I could do was scrounge enough miles for economy but I did maximize the rules but having a stop-over and 2 open-jaws.

BNE – BKK – CNX

Stopover

CNX – BKK – USM

Open jaw #1 which was filled by a super-cheap fare on Air Asia from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur.

KUL – BKK – PVG (8 hour layover) – AKL – RAR

Open jaw #2 ending in Oceania zone so added 5k to each person’s award.

Final cost was 80,000 United miles plus 47,800 Virgin Velocity miles for the final RAR – AKL – BNE to get us home.  The Rarotonga stop was for my husband to visit his friends and family.

LOGISTICS

Our budget was pretty well tapped out after last year so this trip had to be done as cheaply as possible.  The parks I was targeting are all easily reached by public transport and/or short walks from the accommodation.  We used the Starmart Express bus from KLIA to Taiping and regular buses from Taiping to Tanah Rata with a change of bus in Ipoh.  In Tanah Rata, we booked the minibus transfer from Father’s Guesthouse to Taman Negara which includes a boat ride from the jetty at Kuala Tembeling to Kuala Tahan just opposite the Mutiara Taman Negara hotel.  Finally we used a local bus from Kuala Tahan to Jerantut, then a larger bus to Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia birding1

There are a few other birding hotspots we didn’t get to this time – Selangor, Fraser’s Hill and Genting Highlands.  All are very close to Kuala Lumpur and in a pinch could be a day trip.  I decided to save these parks for a future trip when we may be on a One-World ticket via KUL or using Air Asia to get somewhere else in Asia and able to stop over a couple days.

Malaysia birding2

WHEN TO GO

This was a delicate balance of avoiding the rainy season and allowing enough time after returning from Africa and allowing a full year until our big Ecuador/Colombia trip next year to replenish the coffers.

Weather2Travel is my go-to site for weather planning.  April was the last possible time to travel and avoid the rains but still save up for the trip.  March would have been better but wasn’t financially feasible for us at the time, waiting until Nov would be too close to the upcoming 2016 trip.  Always take your personal situation into consideration.

Kuala Tahan weather

VISAS

The citizens of most countries that are likely to be reading this blog can enter Malaysia for at least a month (or 3) visa free.  See details here.

ACCOMMODATION

I booked lodges in Taiping and Tanah Rata on Hotels.com because at the time they were a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and I was chasing the free night after 10 paid nights for next year’s trip.  The hotel in Kuala Lumpur was booked on Pointshound with me referring my husband so both he and I could get miles.  We booked the Mutiara Taman Negara on  Rocketmiles to maximize bonus miles and this hotel was the same price no matter where you booked it.  Each property will be reviewed in the appropriate section of the trip report.

Planning A Birding Trip To Thailand

Birders are spoilt for choice in Thailand!  From the parks in the north such as Doi Inthanon and Doi Ang Kang to the south such as Khao Sok there is a wide variety of bird species to be found throughout the country.  Unless you have lots of money and time (don’t we wish) you won’t get to them all on a typical trip so you have to choose the best places to go birding for your situation.  Some parks are easy to get to and the birds can be seen more easily but other parks are more challenging.  I found Doi Inthanon fairly easy and Mae Ping very challenging.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independant birders have a lot of resources too.  Birding is very popular in Thailand and there are many websites dedicated to reports and bird sightings and to help you plan a birding trip.  Look for the most recent sightings such as this one.  Also pay attention to the time of year as some bird species are migratory.  You can also find locally based tours and guides here.

Thai Birding

North Thailand Birding

South Thailand Birding

 

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  We didn’t have a lot of time, just 2 weeks and I wanted to slot in some R&R time in Chiang Mai and Koh Samui.  Using the websites referenced above, I decided on these national parks, all of which make for fantastic birding.

Doi Inthanon – Blossom-headed Parakeets, actually best seen just outside the park.

Mae Ping – Grey-headed Parakeets

Khao Yai – Red-breasted Parakeets (aka Moustache Parrots), Vernal Hanging Parrots

These parks will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

United Airlines has a fantastic deal on awards between Australia and South-East Asia for 35,000 RT in economy.  Since I had burned so many miles on last year’s Africa trip, the best I could do was scrounge enough miles for economy but I did maximize the rules but having a stop-over and 2 open-jaws.

BNE – BKK – CNX

Stopover

CNX – BKK – USM

Open jaw #1

KUL – BKK – PVG (8 hour layover) – AKL – RAR

Open jaw #2 ending in Oceania zone so added 5k to each person’s award.

Final cost was 80,000 United miles plus 47,800 Virgin Velocity miles for the final RAR – AKL – BNE to get us home.  The Rarotonga stop was for my husband to visit his friends and family.

LOGISTICS

Our budget was pretty well tapped out after last year so this trip had to be done as cheaply as possible.  I figured out that driving ourselves would be cheaper than using public transport and then using taxis or guided tours.  We had two cars, one ex-Chiang Mai and one ex-Bangkok.

Thai map

WHEN TO GO

This was a delicate balance of avoiding the rainy season and allowing enough time after returning from Africa and allowing a full year until our big Ecuador/Colombia trip next year to replenish the coffers.

Weather2Travel has changed their layout since I last used it (I liked the old one better) but you can still get the same information.  The beginning of April was the last possible time to travel and avoid the rains but still save up for the trip.  March would have been better but wasn’t financially feasible, waiting until Nov would be too close to the 2016 trip.

Thai weather

VISAS

The VISA EXEMPTION RULE allows tourists from 52 countries to enter without a visa. They are granted a stay of maximum 30 days but only if entering Thailand via an international airport. However, persons, entering through a land border checkpoint from neighboring countries will be granted a maximum stay of 15 days.

ACCOMMODATION

I booked almost all accommodation on Hotels.com because at the time they were a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and I was chasing the free night after 10 paid nights for next year’s trip.  Some hotels were booked on Pointshound as well.  Rocketmiles had nice properties but we were on a tight budget this time.  Mae Ping was unreserved, we just found something when we arrived, details will be in that blog post.

A “Godmother” Of All African Adventures?

Now that the Mother of all African Adventures is behind us, it seems my fascination with Africa isn’t over yet!  So what would I do for an encore?  If you’ve been reading this blog for the past several months, hopefully you enjoyed hearing how I planned the travel to South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Ghana & Tanzania and saw most of my target birds.  But there is still so much more to see!

So what would be on my list if I do a “Godmother” of all African Adventures?  Here are a few places on my radar.

  1. Namibia – Peach-faced Lovebirds, Ruppells Parrots & more.  This would be a self-drive trip.
  2. Zambia/Botswana/Zimbabwe/Malawi – would choose the best of these for Brown-necked Parrots, Lillian’s Lovebirds, Black-cheeked Lovebirds, Meyers Parrots & more.  Most of these places might require using the car/driver option which is not my preferred method so I would be looking hard for national parks I can get to with public transport & taxis.  So far, these are looking like the most expensive for lodges so I need to do the most research here.
  3. Ethiopia – the layover wasn’t enough, I’d like to get to Menagesha NP for Yellow-faced Parrots, Black-winged Lovebirds & more.  Easy day trip from Addis Ababa or spend one night there.
  4. Uganda – I think my odds for African Grey Parrots are better here than in Ghana.  I’d use public transport to Fort Portal, then a taxi to Kibale.

IMG_3193WHAT DO I NEED?

Short answer – United miles as Star Alliance is by far the best alliance for Africa.  I could supplement with some Avios to get from Namibia to Livingstone, Zambia via JNB.  So looks like Chase will be my best friend for a while longer!

Planning A Birding Trip To Ghana

The first thing you need to do when planning a birding trip to Ghana or anywhere is to identify your main goals.  Since I am a parrot nut, I was targeting habitats where I was likely to see parrots that are known to live in Ghana and of course any birds that also live in the same habitats.  Ghana has an extremely impressive bird list!

MY TARGETS

African Grey Parrot – best chance was Kakum National Park.

Brown-necked Parrot – has been reported in Kakum.

Senegal Parrot – good population in Shai Hills Reserve.

Red-headed Lovebird – can be found anywhere along the east coast of Ghana or in the north.

Red-fronted Parrot (Jardines) – has been seen in Kakum and in villages north of Kakum.

Black-collared Lovebird – seen in the far west of Ghana.

Ghana ParksVISAS

Everyone needs a tourist visa to Ghana and you cannot get it on arrival.  You will have to get it in advance from the Ghanaian Consulate in your country.

Australia

UK

USA

THE PLAN

Since we were on a tight budget and needed to go to places accessible by public transport with taxis to exact locations I chose two of Ghana’s national parks – Kakum and Shai Hills.  Group birding tours will usually hit all of the parks highlighted on the map above but organize tours were way out of our budget.

I kept costs down by using IHG Rewards points to stay at the Holiday Inn, Accra.  From there, we took a taxi out to Shai Hills for a day trip.  We used local minibuses called “Tro-tros” to get from Accra to Cape Coast and another one that took us to Kakum where I had booked the Rainforest Lodge on Booking.com using the American AAdvantage portal.  We used public transport to get from the lodge to the park each day.  At both parks, we hired official guides from the ticket office.

During our stay at Kakum, I met a guide from Ashanti African Tours who was very helpful even though he was escorting an organized birding group.  He gave me the best tip on where to see African Grey Parrots.  I went to their office in Cape Coast hoping to use them for the day trip to Shai Hills but they don’t keep guides in Accra, they base themselves in Cape Coast.  They also gave me a good tip on where to find the Red-headed Lovebirds near Accra (although the birds proved to be very shy).   I do recommend them if you want to be more organized than we were!

Ashanti African Tours – Birdwatching

Ghana is a great place to SEE birds but not so great for photography.  The birds are more timid than in South Africa or even Madagascar and the terrain is much more jungly so most of the time we just got fleeting glimpses of the birds.  I couldn’t get a parrot perched to save my soul!  Plenty of “Video game birds” which is what I call those birds who fly swiftly overhead and I have to try to shoot quickly with my camera.  It’s like playing “Space Invaders”, hence the name!

 

Planning A Visit To Madagascar

Madagascar is one of the most fascinating countries on earth with its unique culture and wildlife found nowhere else on earth.  You could spend months here and not see it all.  Unfortunately, very few of us have unlimited time and money to spend as much time here as we would like so we need to prioritize and plan very carefully to make the most of our visit to Madagascar.  Here’s some things to consider.

VISAS

Madagascar gives a free visa on arrival to the citizens of most countries.  This is where it is essential to book your airplane seat wisely as you want to be first off the plane and first in line at the visa desk.  It’s like a rugby scrum and very disorganized.  People crowd around the desk, most don’t stand in a line and everyone is shoving their passports at the officer who puts them on a desk where other officers grab a passport off the desk, input the data into a computer and issue the visa.  Then he holds up the passport and calls out the name of the owner who will be somewhere in the rugby scrum!  We were one of the first off the plane and it still took about 10 minutes, I wouldn’t want to be last off the plane!  You can also expect to be heat-screened for Ebola as you enter the airport.  You walk slowly past a machine that is able to detect if you have a fever.

FINANCES

Once you get here, if you travel like the locals do, Madagascar can be very cheap.  You will need lots of cash no matter what.  I cannot emphasize this enough as I am very plastic-orientated.  And in Madagascar when I say LOTS of cash, I mean literally.  If you change even $200 you will end up with a very thick stack of Ariary the size of War & Peace!  The bank in the airport is good enough to change cash, there isn’t much difference between them.  Even the tour operator went there to change the Euros I gave her as payment to Ariary and she would know the best place to exchange money.

Only a few hotels around the country and some souvenir shops in Antananarivo accept credit cards and then it’s only Visa or Mastercard, not Amex.  ATMs are widespread but not all banks accept foreign ATM cards.  I totally underestimated this and got into strife in Ankarafantsika as there was no place near by to get cash so we had to seriously curtail what we wanted to do and we could only eat one meal a day in addition to breakfast provided by the hotel.  BNI branches are good for foreign cards, Bank of Africa didn’t accept my debit card or my Visa card.

Petrol (gas) stations do not accept credit cards!  Not even the big ones like Shell, Total, Jovenna and Galana.  This was the main reason I ran low on cash.  I knew I had to pay cash for food, guides, park entries and lodges but I had expected to use a credit card to fill the car.  Unless you are using public transport such as taxi-brousse, you will have to pay the fuel for your rental car so be prepared!

GETTING AROUND

Getting around Madagascar isn’t as simple as South Africa where you can simply drive off in your own rental car on your own.  Car hire companies in Madagascar only hire cars with their own driver.  The rate quoted to you will include the daily rate for the vehicle and the driver’s expenses such as food and accommodation and the car insurance.  You can either book a full tour package which includes your accommodation, sightseeing and the transport or just book the car & driver.  If you book a full package, you will probably have to pay some portion of it in advance by bank transfer as the tour operator has to pay the accommodation.  If you book only the car & driver, you can usually negotiate to pay cash on arrival.  No tour operator in Madagascar that I could find (and I did look extensively) accepts credit cards or even Paypal.

The above is of particular interest to travel hackers as paying by bank transfer is the worst possible scenario.  You have to part with the cash immediately (no 30 days interest free), no miles by using the right credit card and you have to pay bank fees to transfer the money!  There is also some risk if the tour operator doesn’t show up or goes out of business, you won’t get your money back.  Needless to say, I will bend over backwards to avoid bank transfers!

I have to admit that I don’t prefer this type of travel.  I much prefer to drive my own car or take public transport.  I am just not comfortable being in the role of “boss of a personal chauffeur” even just for a few days.  However with a tight schedule and the need to see two specific national parks, we didn’t have time to mess around with public transportation.  If I could have added a couple days on to the week we spent in Madagascar, we could have done the itinerary using public transport (buses & taxi-brousse).

CHOOSING WHICH NATIONAL PARKS TO VISIT

How much time do you have?  What animals and birds do you want to see?  This is where you really have to do your homework.  Even us hard-core birders want to see lemurs as well as birds.  The good news is that pretty much all national parks have different species of lemurs and birds.  If you are after specific species, you need to read trip reports on Surfbirds and see what species are commonly seen where.  Also read up on Madagascar’s National Parks.  Be realistic in how many you can visit in the amount of time available to you.  If you only have a week, choose the two most likely parks to have your target species.  Avoid trusting Air Madagascar to get you anywhere on time, you need a day or so as a buffer just in case they cancel or are very late.  If one of the parks you want is only reachable by plane, do that one first and save the easier-to-reach park for last.

I was targeting the 3 parrot species in Madagascar – Greater Vasa Parrots, Lesser Vasa Parrots and Grey-headed Lovebirds.  After that, I wanted to see as many lemurs and other birds as possible.  I only had a week and didn’t want to mess with Air Madagascar so after many hours of research, I chose two parks that were both reachable from Antananarivo easily by road, even by sedan car so we didn’t need a 4WD.  I chose Andasibe-Mantadia as a good all-rounder that had two of my target birds and Ankarafantsika that had all 3 species.

Mada ParksIn posts to follow, I will go into detail about these two parks, how to get there, where to stay and what to see.

Because I can’t emphasize it enough I will repeat:  when in Madagascar, make sure you have plenty of cash!

 

How To Find Birder-Friendly Accomodation In South Africa

I stumbled on this website while searching for something else.  Since I didn’t go everywhere in South Africa to give personal recommendations it’s a nice little resource to keep on hand.  Kurisa Moya is listed under Limpopo.  The other lodge we stayed at – 2 Oaks in King William’s Town isn’t on the list but they really should be as they are definitely birder-friendly.

“Birder Friendly Establishments” are registered with BirdLife South Africa. They are committed to supporting BirdLife South Africa’s vision, which is to conserve South Africa’s birdlife and their habitats by promoting Avitourism.

These establishments will do their utmost to ensure that birding guests have the best possible “birder friendly” experience. They offer flexible meal times or packed meals when requested, information on birds in their area, and advice on where to pick up local bird guides.

There are certainly a number of other establishments in each area which offer excellent birding, but this section shows specifically those establishments registered with BirdLife South Africa.

2015 – A Year To Rest & Replenish

After a hectic but fulfilling 2014 in which I brought forward two trips I had originally earmarked for 2015; I now find myself with decimated mileage accounts and a need to rebuild.  I’d say that I not only met but I exceeded last year’s goals!  Those trips were also extremely stressful as you saw in my 2014 in Review post so I need a trip that won’t be mentally stressful.  I also need to pay off the credit cards which made it possible to bring those trips forward a whole year and do some home renovations so this year needs to be cheap & cheerful.