Birding trip Vietnam (South) and Malaysia (West) 29 Nov - 19 Dec 2009
                         John van der Woude  -
                     Photo report   -    see also Species list
This was a combined trip to Peninsular Malaysia and South Annam, Vietnam. We had booked a cheap flight Amsterdam - Kuala Lumpur and first spent a few days at Fraser's Hill in Malaysia, to get used to the birds in this Oriental region again. Then we had 12 days in Vietnam: Cat Tien NP for the lowland forest, and the Da Lat area for the hill forests. The logistics of the Vietnam trip was excellently organized by Richard Craik of Vietnam Birding. Back in Malaysia, we birded the Panti forest reserve in the South, and paid a short visit to the former Dutch town of Melaka. 
The combination of lowland and hills in both Vietnam and Malaysia worked out fine, as is apparent from the species list. This trip brought us past the 4000 mark on both our life lists.
This was our first visit to Vietnam and we very much enjoyed the daily life there: great people, great food. This is a country Nollie and I would love to visit once more, and then certainly have the trip again organized by Richard Craik.

1 = Fraser's Hill & The Gap 29 Nov - 2 Dec.
2 = Cat Tien 3-8 Dec    3 = Da Lat area 8-14 Dec.
4 = Panti reserve 16-19 Dec.

Vietnam - Cat Tien national park. See trip reports via, esp. the one of Henk Hendriks, with a map. We found birding Cat Tien far from easy, despite our experience with tropical lowland forest birding. We still managed to get several specialties, like Germain's Peacock-Phaesant. Four full days is really the minimum for this site. The Heavenly Rapids track was the most rewarding part (i.e. the driveable track, less so the concrete trail of the same name), followed by the Bau Sau trail, which goes for 5 km to the Crocodile Lake. Upon arrival, we let us convince by the local staff that we best take a four hour jeep ride (17 euro) in stead of single drives (7 euro I believe) to e.g. the start of the Bau Sau trail, but the four hour ride was rather useless: too short for any good birding. So after that we just took single jeep drives to the Bau Sau trail and made short bike tours closer to the headquarter. We also walked several times the trails which start near the HQ but found them slightly less valuable. Beware that the bikes are too rickety for the 15 km rather rough dirt road to the start of the Bau Sau trail, but good enough to cycle to the end of the Heavenly Rapids track. The bikes are less than 1 euro per hour.
Cat Tien has two restaurants, and we found the bigger one the best one. Meals were mostly about 6 euro for 2 persons, including beer. I just mention these rates of food and transport so you can calculate a bit how much (or little) money you should change before travelling to Cat Tien. In Da Lat cash is not a problem, there are several ATM's.

Vietnam - Da Lat area, including Di Linh. Again, see the maps in Hendriks' report. Here we were driven around by Luyen from Da Lat and we enjoyed his company very much. He speaks good English and is a birder too. So not only did he bring us as close to the best birding sites as possible, but he also advised us every day about our remaining target birds. We mainly birded Di Linh (laughingtrhushes, parrotbill), Ta Nung valley (good for many species), Bidoup/Bi Dup NP (higher altitude broadleaved forests), and Ho Tuyen Lam (pine woodland). Di Linh is a must when travelling to or from Da Lat, esp. because its slightly lower altitude than Da Lat itself; we birded both along the pass road and along the steep trail going up from the small café. Ta Nung is an excellent and easily accessible site where I could actually have birded every day for a few hours. The large Bidoup NP was mainly birded from twow roads, one untarred and the other brand new (Luyen knows the best spots, e.g. for Vietnamese Cutia and Collared Laughingthrush, which we both saw extremely well). Ho Tuyen Lam is not an easy site because of the confusing maze of trails and is best done with a local guide I think. Moreover, I was a bit scared of the tourist elephants freely roaming the Ho Tuyen Lam area not only at night but also early in the morning.
Da Lat is a nice town at 1500 m, and we liked to stroll around a bit in the evenings from our comfortable and centrally located Dreams hotel (with its very good and early breakfast!). We found Long Hoa the best of the restaurants we tried, and still the food and even the beer was very cheap. It is located near the lively central market.

Malaysia - Fraser's Hill and The Gap. See also my 2002 report. The New Road from The Gap to Fraser's Hill was closed for repair, and we were told that, should the New Road be damaged again, it may be given up altogether. Traffic on the Old Road is up at uneven hours, and down at even hours (see photo below). As the middle section of the 8 km long Old Road has good birds, it is advisable to ask the gatekeeper if you may stay over, so have your car parked at say Km 4 and then only use it again when the traffic is going in the direction you want. Or just walk the road from above and back again. Also, a short walk from below (The Gap) is worthwhile. Like in 2002, we found the Lady Maxwell road rewarding, esp. where it splits. The Telekom loop was also good, but beware of traffic going the wrong way (officially it is a one-way loop). The waterfall area was also good (we had not been there in 2002). The road from The Gap towards Kuala Kubu Bahru also produced several good birds.
We stayed at the Shahzan hotel (the former Quest/Merlin), and found it better than the Quest was, although the breakfast was not so good and too late, so we soon skipped that. The Chinese restaurant was our favorite again (see photo below for its present location), and we often frequented the small old shop a bit above the gate.

Malaysia - Panti forest. This site seems far away, but as KLIA (Kuala Lumpur international airport) is rather far South of KL, the driving time from KLIA to Kota Tinggi (the town near Panti) is about equal to the driving time from KLIA to, say, the Cameron highlands in the North. Moreover, we found a visit to the old colonial town of Melaka (between KLIA and the South) worthwhile too.
The Panti forest reserve can be entered from road 3 between Kota Tinggi and Mersing, just where, at c. 20 minutes from K. Tinggi, two large concrete bunkers are on each side of the road. Birding is essentially done from the easily drivable sand road (the 'Bunker track') which goes left (West) here, plus the only side track of it. Also, there are a few narrow trails (with leeches) which we birded for a short distance; these start at several points along the sand road and its side track. We found the birding best around 3 - 5 km from the start of the sand road, and near the entrance.
Beware that, while driving from K. Tinggi, there is also a sign with 'Panti recreational forest' but you have to drive on until you see the bunkers (with a new sign 'Panti Bird Reserve' or so).
We stayed at the Tanjung Sutera resort at the coast, a lovely place where having an early packed breakfast and packed lunch is no problem at all. Should you stay in the Panti forest every day from dawn to dusk, then just a hotel room in Kota Tinggi may be more practical (the Mayres hotel looked fine, and big enough to always have space I think). The drive from K. Tinggi to Panti is c. 20 minutes along road 3, and from the Sutera resort to Panti c. 35 minutes along a more winding road.

Car rental, flights, sim cards, maps, travel guides, field guides, safety. For both periods in Malaysia we rented a car at Avis for 40 euro per day all inclusive. This was the Proton Wira, which may look rather old-fashioned but it has a large boot, a 1.5 liter engine, airco and automatic transmission. In both cars, the automatic window at the driver's seat worked not always properly, and we saw other Wira's with the same problem. At KLIA, the car rental counters are to the right directly after entering the public area. Here too is a counter of telecom provider Cellcom, where we bought a simcard for 1 euro or so, and phoning to Holland this way was extremely cheap. In Vietnam, we bought a simcard as well (just somewhere along the road after leaving the airport of HCMC/Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon), for similarly low rates.
The  return flight Amsterdam - Kuala Lumpur was only 550 euro, and the return flight from KL to HCMC was 120 euro (lowest fare, may be sold out). This 670 euro was significantly cheaper than the regular flights from Europe to Vietnam, and has the advantage of having a few days for e.g. Fraser's Hill. The same may apply for a flight via Singapore, then having the opportunity to visit Panti, which is only a few hours drive from Singapore.
While driving out of KLIA, we parked at the first petrol station, after a few km, and in its rather large store we bought detailed maps of Malaysia plus the usual stuff like drinking water and snacks. As travel guides we used the Rough Guide for both countries. It was the first time we used Rough Guide, and we were surprised by its high quality (i.e. not just rough/basic) and the many details.
As field guides, for Vietnam we used the 2005 edition of Craig Robson's Birds of Southeast Asia, and for Malaysia mainly Jeyarajasingam & Pearson's field guide for West Malaysia and Singapore. For both field guides I made quick indexes to put in/on the back of the field guide.
We found safety not an issue at all on this trip. Both countries seem very safe, at least at the locations where we stayed. Still, we always appreciate a locker in our room, like there was in Da Lat, so we can safely stow away our binoculars when going out.

Cars waiting at The Gap for the one-way traffic up to Fraser's Hill, Malaysia, along the Old Road. 
Yellow-vented and Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers were on the left.

Traffic along the Old Road is up at uneven and down at even hours. At the gate (this one is at the upper end), ask permission to stay over halfway the Old Road; see the text above.

Male Black-throated Sunbird at The Gap. A common bird.

Female of the same species.

A mantis has just caught a huge bee or so. Note the long forelegs of the mantis holding the victim.

View from the balcony of our room at the Shahzan hotel onto the centre of Fraser's Hill. 
At the base of the renovated hotel left is a new sort of snack restaurant, but our favorite was the Chinese restaurant which is just visible behind the house with the red roof in the centre of the photo.

Along the Old Road a bit upward from The Gap. Here we had a group of four Black Laughingthrushes in the tangles, and a group of four Little Cuckoo-Doves in the bamboo.

Halfway the Old Road we saw and heard a group of foraging Siamang. 
For a sample of Siamang sounds, listen to this track from my 2002 report.

At this spot along the road from The Gap down to Kuala Kubu Bahru we saw Marbled Wren-Babbler, one of the specialties of the area. This was at c. Km 29.

The road from The Gap down to Kuala Kubu Bahru really deserves some birding time, especially around Km 29.

Our first impression of Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): thousands of motorbikes, a very lively street scene!

HCMC/Saigon street view.

Houses in Vietnam are often very narrow, so space is obtained by building many stories and/or very long houses. 
One of you wrote me that this narrowness is (still!) regulated by a law dating from imperial times.

The concrete track near the headquarters of Cat Tien NP. This track is a good place to start your birding in this national park, with e.g. Racket-tailed Treepie, Great Eared Nighjar and several warblers.

Pond-Heron at Cat Tien, presumably Chinese although in winter it is inseparable from Javan.

Our room at Cat Tien NP. With modern, quiet airco and private shower. Not bad for a national park!

Along the Lagerstroemia trail, Cat Tien NP.

Exotic butterflies at Cat Tien NP.

Cat Tien's Heavenly Rapids track was good birding, with White-throated Rock-Thrush, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Banded Broadbill, White-browed Piculet and many others. This track should not be confused with the concrete Heavenly Rapids trail a bit closer to the river.

Dense spider web, Cat Tien NP. Would be nice if he would catch leeches, which we often had in Cat Tien.

Crocodile Lake at the end of the 5 km long Bau Sau trail. Osprey and Lesser Whistling-Ducks flew around, and  Bronze-winged Jacana was in the foreground.

Same lake. Here we had the near-threatened Grey-headed Fish Eagle.

Nollie's friend - our bathroom frog in Cat Tien NP.

Cat Tien NP has a rich vegetation.

The Di Linh birding site, part of the Da Lat plateau, and a must while travelling from Cat Tien to Da Lat. 
Good for laughingthrushes and several other specialties.

White-cheeked Laughingthrushes quickly foraging before moving on. Photos by Luyen Nguyen ©. 
Luyen's photos on this page were all taken while we watched these photographed birds together with him.

Stone cutter sharpening his tools at the small quarry at the Di Linh birding site.

Coffee plantations on the Da Lat plateau. We were told that Vietnam is the second coffee exporter in the world.

Black-shouldered Kite near Da Lat. Photo by Luyen Nguyen ©. 
This species is remarkably uniform across its wide Eurasian distribution, in contrast to species like Eurasian Jay which we 'hardly recognized' when seeing it near Da Lat.

Inside Ta Nung valley near Da Lat. Excellent birding, with crocias, tesia, laughingthrushes and many others. Even Vietnamese Greenfinch at the pines at start of the trail down to the valley.

Pine woodland at Ho Tuyen Lam. Large Woodshrike was common here. 
Also Red Crossbill, with a remarkably large bill so this may be a future split.

Grey Bushchat near Da Lat. Photo by Luyen Nguyen ©.

Road construction near Da Lat, permitting a quicker access to Bidoup NP.

Bidoup NP is a vast area of higher altitude broadleaved forest and pine woodland. 
In this national park we had Vietnamese Cutia, Collared Laughingthrush, Yellow-billed Nuthatch and many other species. Also Vietnamese Greenfinch again.

(photos of Vietnamese Cutia later?)

Yellow-cheeked Tit near Da Lat. Photo by Luyen Nguyen ©.

At the waterfall near Da Lat. Despite the new large-scale tourist facilities (just not visible in this photo), this is still a nice birding site.

Annam Barbet (split from Black-browed Barbet) at the waterfall of Da Lat.

This seems a leaf ....

.... but it's a butterfly (Ta Nung valley bottom).

Ta Nung valley again, we never got enough of this splendid birding site. The last hour here we witnessed a group of 15 to 20 Long-tailed Broadbills, and in their company a male Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher. For the latter species, this was only the second record for South Annam, and the first winter record!

Another try at the Ho Tuyen Lam area. Not easy to find the trails on your own, but still got birds like Grey-faced Buzzard. We have rarely seen pine woodland with such a good understorey.

Sad sight in Da Lat: several of the special birds of the Da Lat area are for sale here.

Back in Malaysia, we paid a visit to Melaka town, where the Dutch ruled for about a century. These tombstones in the St Paul's church ruin show the young age at which several of them died, so it probably was not an easy life there.

View from the terrace of Tanjung Sutera resort near Kota Tinggi. We stayed here for our daily visits to the Panti forest reserve (a 30 minutes drive). On the rocks below, Collared Kingfishers watched the incoming tide.

The sand road ('Bunker track') through Panti forest reserve. At this spot we had both Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler and Malaysian Rail-Babbler. We made a 1 minute sound recording of both species together. This is a 10 second mp3 cut, and this the full wav recording (96kHz/32 bit stereo; wav file, 22 MB). The rail-babbler is the whistling note on one pitch, the other two sounds are from the tit-babbler.

We were very lucky with the rail-babbler, so closeby! This is the most sought-after species in Panti, and Panti is probably the best place to see it.

Crested Serpent-Eagle in Panti.

A huge Monitor Lizard (Varanus spec.) crossing the sand road of Panti.

The only side road in Panti. Birding in Panti is mainly done from the 'main' sand road plus this side track, and some short trails. Along this track we heard monkeys 'laughing' (probably just communicating), and you can listen to a 1-minute stereo recording of it here (wav, 22 MB)

Butterflies abound in Panti, many of them being very colourful.

Cinereous Bulbul in Panti. This has been split from Ashy Bulbul.

Little Green Pigeon near the entrance of Panti, at a fruiting tree.

Back home in Holland, we were pleasantly surprised by a white Christmas, the first in 25 years or so.

see also Species list