Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

Thale Noi & Koh Ngai – Birdwatching & Beaches without the Crowds

Thailand is known for its world-class national parks and beaches. Unfortunately, their popularity has made the visitor experience less intimate and increasingly more dangerous to sustaining nature’s beauty. My recent visit to Thale Noi Non-Hunting Area (Bird Sanctuary) and Koh Ngai Island in Southern Thailand’s Phatthalung and Krabi Provinces (via Trang) reminded me of just how amazing Thailand’s nature is without the crowds.

Visiting Thale Noi is a must for any bird lover. It is a haven for large waterbirds and migratory birds, the kind that even a non-birder would surely appreciate, such as the Asian Openbill Stork, Grey and Purple Herons and little cormorants. There seem to be few places like it in the region, a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance with 180 native and migratory bird species that can be easily seen from the shore’s edge or by boat. The lagoon is part of the greater Songkhla Lake Basin, the largest lake in Thailand where the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin can also be found (with some patience and local guidance). Thale Noi is popular with Thai tourists, especially on the weekends and holidays, who come to selfie the endless plains of pink and purple lotus and sun setting and rising over the lake with its fantastically large fish traps.

Just a couple hours’ drive from Trang airport to the west of Thale Noi is Koh Ngai, a peaceful 2-by-4 km mountainous island with no roads and more forest than anything else. The beach is of the perfect long and sandy kind and has large flocks of Oriental pied hornbills camping out in the trees above. The island has been zoned for tasteful tourism, with just a handful of resorts and guesthouses available. Although this has caused higher prices than the more popular beach destinations, the trade-off is well worth it and isn’t much of a trade-off at that.  Diving and snorkelling in the surrounding waters, which are part of Mu Koh Lanta National Park, is also quite good and easy for beginners.

For those in a hurry or living in Bangkok, Thale Noi and Koh Ngai can be visited in 2-3 days. Here’s the itinerary I followed:

  • Friday: Fly to Trang. Overnight in Trang. Enjoy local food at the night market.
  • Saturday: Depart for Koh Ngai. There are many transport options to get to Pak Meuang, where you can get a boat to Koh Ngai (approx. 45 minutes from the pier). (Option for divers: Arrange to pick up at your hotel by a local dive company, which will take you Koh Ngai). Stay overnight on Koh Ngai.
  • Sunday: Depart Koh Ngai at 9:30-10am (boats are booked directly from your hotel). Take a passenger van from Pak Meuang to Trang Airport, where you can pick up your rental car. Drive 1.5 hours to Thale Noi. Enjoy an afternoon boat trip for birdwatching for about 1-2 hours. Enjoy the sunset and stay overnight in one of the eco-lodges located on the lake’s edge.
  • Monday: Early morning boat trip to see the sunrise and birds. Lazy morning on the lake’s edge. Drive back to Trang and fly back to Bangkok in the afternoon.
  • If you’ve got more time: Stay longer in Koh Ngai, spend more time on the Songkhla Lake to look for Irrawaddy dolphins, and visit Khao Pu Khao Ya National Park between Trang and Thale Noi.

Tips for Ecotourists:

  • Koh Ngai – Stay at one of the tented camp resorts, a good low impact option that is also cheaper than the more built accommodation. Encourage your dive company to pay the fee to the national park; it’s not expensive and it helps support the conservation of marine life. Protect birdlife by not purchasing bird nest products and buying a handicraft instead.
  • Thale Noi – Take a boat ride or two (sunset and sunrise) on Thale Noi with the boat association. By taking a boat ride, you are encouraging local people to continue protecting birds. Support local crafts and food sold at the market across from the boat association and ticket office; there’s a lot of good fish products and crafts for sale.

For more information

Thale Noi bird lists:

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