Birding trip report Vietnam (South) and Malaysia (West)  
29 Nov - 19 Dec 2009
John van der Woude
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
= 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.