GO ON SAFARI IN THE KINGDOM OF THAILAND
Staring at a map of tropical Thailand, or Siam as it was formerly known, you can see that its top half resembles a cat with its paws neatly tucked in, whilst the bottom bit looks like spilled milk. (More on cats later…) This mystical country, made up of 76 provinces, sits at the axis of the Southeast Asian Indochina peninsula. With over 68 million people, it’s planet Earth’s 50th largest country by total area. In short, it’s a little bit smaller than Yemen and only a fraction larger than Spain. To the north, its neighbors are Myanmar and Laos, eastwards sit Laos and Cambodia, heading south is the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and finally, to the west is the Andaman Sea and the southern edge of Myanmar. As for its maritime borders, in the southeast of the Gulf of Thailand there is Vietnam, and Indonesia and India in the Andaman Sea are to the southwest. This is an ancient country alright — the earliest evidence of rice growing dates to an incredible 2,000 BC. Thailand is wonderfully described as follows by author, Bernard Kalb, “(It’s) a rejuvenating tonic; the people seem to have found the magic elixir. Life, a visitor feels, has not been wasted on the Thais.” And that’s just an impression of its people. Wait until you’re in the company of its wildlife on safari. Let’s go! GO BIG OR GO HOME The endearing elephant is the country’s national symbol. Unfortunately, their numbers have dwindled. Nowadays there are only an estimated 2,000 left. The fact that there are more elephants in captivity than in their natural habitat is a further challenge. Fortunately, environmental activists and dedicated locals are doing tremendous work to tip the scales. The Asian elephant is somewhat smaller than the African bush elephant but still sizeable! Males are, on average, 2.75 m (9.0 ft) tall at the shoulder and 3,600 kg in weight. The females are 2.4 m (7.9 ft) at the shoulder and clock 2,500 kg on the scales. ‘TUSK’ IS NOT ONLY A FLEETWOOD MAC TRACK Do their tusks go to work? You bet they do. They serve to dig for water, salt, and rocks, to debark and uproot trees, and as a type of lever to move around fallen trees and branches. They’re also used as display, for marking trees, as a stealthy weapon for both offense and defense, as trunk-rests, and as a shield for its trunk. Unlike their African counterpart who use their forefeet for anything other than to dig or scrape the soil, Asian elephants are more adept at using their feet along with their trunks to maneuver objects. Yes, there is somewhat of an aggressive nature to be detected, but it’s only natural. Its wrinkled skin’s color is a distinctive gray. Chances are that any of these elephants you see will be covered with soil due to their dusting and wallowing. Wallowing you say? Look at it as a type of ‘comfort behavior,’ during which the elephant rolls its massive body about in the mud and water. It has a fine time rolling about in the dust. This action is aptly referred to as ‘dust bathing.’ Their wallowing fuses with other behaviors – for instance, these elephants will often blow dirt over themselves after wallowing to create a thicker coating. That reminds us, have you packed your TAG Safari jacket? MEET EINSTEIN THE ELEPHANT By now, scientists have recorded that these mammals have ‘a greater volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing than all other existing land animals.’ Studies have shown that Asian elephants have cognitive behavior for tool use and tool making much like the great apes. They can show grief, learning, allomothering (basically non-maternal infant care when any group member other than the mother or genetic father performs that role), mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language.?) And they will sure as anything head for safer ground during natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. Clever. Smart. Mesmerizing. Simply wonderful creatures. LET’S PROWL AROUND How does spotting a leopard cat on safari sound to you? The leopard cat is about the size of your average Felix, but more svelte, with longer legs and well-defined webs between its toes. As for make-up, its head is marked with a duo of distinctive dark stripes and a short, thin, white muzzle. Two dark stripes also run from the eyes to the ears, and smaller white streaks run from the eyes to the nose. It’s covered in dark spots, none of which are the same size or color. The spots don’t end here. All along its back there are two to four rows of elongated spots. The tail wraps it up nicely with a couple of indistinct rings near the black tip. It’s no plain Jane! The background color of the spotted fur is a warm, sandy color, then there’s the distinctive white chest and belly. Note that its fur color can range from yellowish-brown when you’re on safari in the south to pale silver-gray when you’re trekking in the north of the country. This little tyke prefers its own company, bar breeding season. They’re intrepid night hunters and fond of stalking murids (that’s a rodent), tree shrews (a small mammal resembling a squirrel) and hares. It’s a given that they’re agile climbers. They can swim but prefer not to. It’s a ‘little’ cat, after all. SET YOUR SIGHTS ON SCENIC VISTAS So, what does the Thai environment look like in which the Asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear, white-handed lar, pileated gibbon, binturong and the rest of the gang feature? Up north, fields and forest side up against rugged blue-gray mountains with a ridiculous number of crashing waterfalls. Down south, choppy limestone cliffs dot the cultivated landscape. And then there’s the magical jungle-topped islands. The sea meets sand, quite extensively, so pack your sunscreen. GO EXPLORING IN KANCHANABURI Here you’ll find the real ‘Bridge On The River Kwai.’ While you gaze at this landmark we’re sure this classic quote and delivery of Commander Shears to his nurse in the 1957 film will ring through your mind, “You give me powders, pills, baths, injections, enemas when all I need is love.” Okay, back to the limestone caves morphing with dense jungle. You’re in for an incredibly scenic adventure. Kayaking and rock climbing are extremely popular activities in these parts. Go on a safari walk past those mirror-like waterfalls, or a cave exploration, then return to base, base being either a luxurious riverside resort, a treetop bungalow or a traditional village home. NATURE MEETS ADVENTURE AT KHAO SOK NATIONAL PARK Simply put, this park situated in southern Thailand is breathtaking. The area is covered by the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world and huge limestone mountains reach sky-high, the valleys stretch deep down below, the lakes are breathtaking, the caves a thrill, and there are plenty of wild animals too. Gigantic wild elephants, quite a number of Malayan sun bears, swinging gibbons, shy mouse deer and stealthy bamboo rats are but some of the numerous mammals found in Khao Sok National Park. They all play an essential role in upholding the life cycle of the surrounding rainforest. Staying on the topic of Khao Sok’s rainforest, it is part tropical evergreen forest and part tropical rainforest. There are about 200 different floral species found here per hectare, making it an incredibly bio-diverse area (consider that the average forest in Europe or North America has only about ten tree species per hectare). You’ll be surrounded by a flora kingdom – buttress roots, Rafflesia, pitcher plants, figs, dipterocarp trees, coconut palms, bananas, and bamboo… SOME OF THE BEST BEACHES IN THE WORLD Patong and Kata Beach in Phuket, Railay Beach in Krabi, Long Beach on the island of Koh Lanta, Hua Hin Beach near Bangkok, Lamai Beach in Koh Samui, Sairee Beach in Koh Tao, White Sand Beach (!) in Koh Chang, Sunrise Beach at Haad Rin and Ao Nang in Krabi – these are our picks. Some cater for the quiet safari soul and others for the adventurous safari reveler. Wonderful turquoise water is the common denominator. TIME IT RIGHT FOR GLORIOUS WEATHER Climate-wise, keep in mind that Thailand has one of those west versus east climate patterns. Safari goers usually opt for November to alternate wildlife viewing with lounging on an assortment of west coast beaches. The month of June is excellent if you’re not into crowds of holidaymakers – there are rich cultural highlights aplenty, and the weather is as ambient as can be. There is, of course, a variation in climate throughout the whole country, yet Thailand is one of those gems which you can visit all year long. It’s lovely, cool and dry between November and early April. Heading south, there is a difference in climate between the western and eastern coast. The west puts on a show during the winter months, and the diehards will tell you that this is just the time for diving and snorkeling. The east coast is good to go for most of the year – little rain falls during January and February; the bulk of it will pour down in November. There is this beautiful saying by, yes, a politician, Jawaharlal Nehru. It goes like this: “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” Prepare to be wide-eyed whilst on your Thai safari.