Arriving into Thailand after a full-on, hectic four and a half months in India followed by a strict two week Myanmar guided tour we spent our first night camped in Taksin Maharat National Park near the Northwest border. The immediate quiet and organisation of the place was a shock to the system! Off season, the camp site was empty so we had an entire site for us and our French family friends in their motorhome who we’d travelled across Myanmar with. A basic yet sufficient wash block meant we had clean water, shower and toilet facilities and a huge open, flat space to clean, hand-wash, re-order (and relax) after our Indian odyssey.
There are 127 National Parks in Thailand, varying from quiet, low-key areas with basic camping facilities to tourist-tastic parks complete with Hornbill keyrings and Deer tame enough to take a selfie with. They are excellent places to plan your route around as the facilities are perfect for overlanders and the cost minimal- with incredible jungle, mountains and coastline they are perfect places for relaxing in nature and spotting (surprisingly easily) many of the hundreds of species of animal, birds, reptiles and insects.
Mae Surin National Park offered an escape from the steep tarmac roads, as beautiful, sedate sand tracks weave along the edges of unspoiled forest. Wild camping was easy with viewpoints and picnic spots overlooking an undulating, tree-covered horizon.
Our next stop was Khao Yai National Park, in the East of Thailand, where we stayed 3 nights at Lumtakong Campsite where the less-than-shy resident Sambar Deer outnumbered campers several to one. Drinking tea with the beating of Hornbills wings flying overhead and jumping as a huge water monitor lizard strides past you, slipping into the nearby river and gliding across.
Dawn hikes through swaying, orange sunlit grassland with wild elephants crashing through the undergrowth nearby and gibbons howling and acrobatically swinging through the jungle canopy above. This is the gem of Thailands Parks, with a modern visitor’s centre and over 50km of marked, extensive, beautiful hiking trails.
Southwest of Bangkok, we visited Kaeng Krachan National Park, staying in Ban Krang campsite where salt licks attract huge aggregations of colourful butterflies (over 300 species!) at the camps entrance. A stream flows through, with Malabar squirrels hanging from tree branches above and stump-tailed Macaques chattering in the tree tops.
Smaller, low-key reserves dot the Thai coastline, our first experience of this was at Hat Wanakon on the East coast. With our hammock slung between two beachside pine trees we watched a stunning sunset over the water as fishing boats bobbed past. In the morning we wandered through pine groves, large vivid lizards diving for their burrows, on our way to the outdoor showers.
Crossing the narrow band of Southern Thailand to the West coast we camped at Laem Son National Park, fringing an idyllic stretch of beach with forested outcrops. Khao Lampi Hat Thai National Park further south boasted a completely empty campsite, beautiful solitude right on the beach- coastal wilderness with the luxury of toilets and showers in a scenic pine forest. Karst limestone islands loom from the waves in Krabi province, creating a surreal landscape around Hat Chao Mai National Park. Along this deserted stretch of beach on the Andaman coastline we saw no one but the odd curious cockle collector and were able to swim and sunbathe in peace with the tide lapping all the way to our table and chairs.
Timing is key when visiting Thailand’s National Parks; they are far more enjoyable when quiet so try and visit off-season if possible and during the week. The bigger parks have a reasonably budget-denting entrance fee (eg- Khao Yai is £8/$10 each) but this covers your entire stay, no matter if you visit for an afternoon or four days. We chose fewer parks but stayed longer to make visits more economical and give ourselves enough time to relax and hike the surrounding area. Camping is extra but only around 60p each a night and the facilities are basic but generally well-maintained. In contrast the smaller coastal parks charge only £2/$3 entrance so you can afford to stay in several for single nights. The security of patrolling rangers on campsites means you can stay ‘set-up’ and wander off into the wilds and sleep better without that ‘on-guard’ feeling when wild camping. Of all the countries we have travelled in, Thailand’s National Parks are by far the best, managing to maintain that wonderful wilderness feel while providing fantastic, affordable facilities across the entire country. It’s a great way of seeing wildlife while contributing directly to its protection.
Only a few kilometres from one of the worlds most visited monuments, The Taj Mahal, lies the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on the peaceful Yamuna River.
The centre houses and cares for 211 Indian sloth bears, all rescued from the horrendous former practice of ‘dancing bears’.
Historically, Indian Sloth bears cubs were stolen from their mothers, their muzzles pierced with a red-hot iron poker and a rope attached through their nose to force them on to their hind legs to ‘dance’; first for Mughal Emperors, then for local crowds and tourists. The bears endured a life of pain and suffering with health problems, cramped cages and poor food.
In 1996, research carried out by the non-governmental organisation Wildlife SOS revealed 1,200 dancing bears in India. Over the next 12 years, Wildlife SOS achieved the incredible task of rescuing and rehabilitating more than 600 bears until the last dancing bear was rescued in 2009.
We had a tour around the rescue centre in Agra, where groups of rescued bears roam in large enclosures, each group cared for by dedicated keepers. Their health is continually monitored as years of abuse and malnutrition, plus the physical scars of their nose piercings and canine teeth removal can cause them ongoing problems.
In a sad reminder of their past lives in servitude, their noses still show tears and holes where their ropes were tied and some bears still sway repeatedly, still haunted by years spent in confinement.
A visit to one of the centres two kitchens revealed the enormous scale of feeding over 200 large mammals; huge vats of wheat and millet porridge with honey and milk sat ready to be distributed to the bears for one of their three daily feeds, alongside boiled eggs, fresh fruit and cooked vegetables.
It was amazing to watch these majestic animals, finally free from their lives of painful performance and torture, now able to enjoy social interaction, good food, natural behaviours and a life in peaceful nature.
It’s an incredible success story for conservation and animal welfare in India and demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short space of time by dedicated and passionate individuals Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani and their team. Volunteers from around the world come to the facility to give their time to help feed and care for the bears, as well as raising awareness and much-needed funds for the ongoing work of the organisation.
Despite the trade in dancing bears being over, the threat of poaching of Indian Sloth Bears still remains. We met ‘Elvis’ who was recently confiscated on the border with Nepal on his way to China where there is still a lucrative market in bear ‘parts’ for medicine. Fortunately he was rescued in time and is now in quarantine at the centre where he is doing well.
You can visit the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and even arrange to spend a day with keepers to learn more about their work caring for the bears; http://wildlifesos.org/agra-bear-rescue-facility or follow their fantastic work with wildlife on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wildlifesosindia
The natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan is simply overwhelming- varying altitudes create a huge diversity of landscapes, with alpine valleys, flower meadows, snowy mountains, fertile pasturelands and fast-flowing clear rivers vying for your adventure attention. For us, one of our lasting memories will be the aquatic gems which lie amongst its mountains, notably our three favourite lakes; Issyk Kul, Song Kul and Sary Chelek.
Beach. Serene. Relax.
Meaning ‘Hot Lake’ in Kyrgyz, Issyk Kul is the world’s tenth largest lake (by volume) yet never freezes, despite the shores reaching sub-zero temperatures in winter. Wash your car in the water (as we foolishly did!) and the white, oily sheen left over the entire surface reveals its anti-freeze secret- a low level of salinity. In fact, it’s the second largest saline water body in the world, after the Caspian Sea. Only two and a half hours drive from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, this is the perfect escape from the city and in the summer is visited by thousands of Kyrgyz holidaymakers and Kazakhs from across the nearby border.
Your personality dictates your shore preference- on the North you can pedalo and party with fluorescent beach resorts pumping out distorted Russian pop amidst the lingering smell of mutton shashlik and Baltika beer. Meander along the south and you can find entire, sedate beaches to yourself or wander into the quiet backdrop of mountains into Swiss-like scenery with crystal clear rivers and lush green valleys. At times, driving along the South coast the blue waters and sheltered rocky coves and beaches are reminiscent of an azure Adriatic coastline.
We visited alluring Issyk Kul three times, driving a complete lap on our first jaunt, diverting into several valleys with mineral springs, glacial rivers and grassland plateaus and visiting the charming market town of Karakol. Our second stop-off, on route back from southern Kyrgyzstan escapades, was more relaxed with a few days camped on a quiet stretch of the northern shore, swimming and watching the sun set across the water over the Tian Sian in the distance.
Finally, when prolonged visa delays in the capital became too much, it was to the southern shore of Issyk Kul that we fled, the lapping waves bringing instant calm and lazy beach days rejuvenating our stressed souls from permits and paperwork.
Remote. Wild. Elemental.
The loftiest of the lakes at just over 3,000m, Song Kul leaves all the beachgoers and picnickers at the foot of its perilous road and high-pass precipitous approach, almost an initiation for those worthy enough to make the effort and reap the rewards of time spent in this incredible location. This is true wilderness; a remote and barren place where the weather changes in an instant and the sky is a rolling, dramatic aerial dome of colours and clouds. A lap of this far-flung lake is an off-road expedition on steep sand tracks, through boggy margins and stony beaches, passing isolated yurt camps and windswept plains. During our summer visit, the northeast part of the lake was home to nomadic grazers; their numerous sheep, goats, yak and horses dotting the rich grassland. Friendly nomads called at our camp, joining us for tea or breakfast and insisting we ride their horse in return. Young, pink-cheeked children practise herding, bouncing around on donkey-back and giggling as they stop to let their mini-steeds drink from the lake edge.
Verdant. Lush. Picture-perfect.
A diversion into western Kyrgyzstan and a bumpy climb through the lush forests of Jalal-Abad Province is rewarded with the picture-perfect sight of Sary Chelek Lake. Nestled between vertical forested slopes of the Chatkal Mountains, the colossal snow-covered peaks of the Tian Shan loom in the distance, reflected enchantingly on the still surface of the water. A relatively small lake compared to its mightier cousins, at just 1.5km at its widest point and 7.5 km long, Sary Chelek translates literally to ‘yellow bucket’ after its appearance amidst golden trees in autumn. In contrast, our summer visit was a green vision of verdant beauty. Winding steeply along the approach road, an occasional peek of the vivid blue lake is glimpsed between the dense, overgrown vegetation and woodland. The inaccessibility of the lake protects its pristine relict fruit and nut forest edges, we settled for a camp on the shores of a nearby lower lake connected by shallow cascades. This is a shared paradise with many other visitors but we managed a quiet afternoon paddling in the cool edges, watching shoals of fish darting in the shallows and relaxing in the lakeside meadow.
The true heart of Kazakhstan can be found in its vast steppe land, at times stretching to an infinite horizon in every direction. The world’s ninth largest country, a third of Kazakhstan’s colossal land area is steppe, an indication of just how immense this landscape is. So common is the sight of eternal, flat plain that it is easy to take this beautiful habitat for granted and many exploring the natural wonders of the country bypass this glorious grassland and focus mainly on its mountains, canyons, lakes and National Parks.
At first sight, the steppe landscape can appear monotonous and barren but peer closer to the ground and there is a myriad of wildlife to be discovered. Hot, dry summers and freezing winters present challenging conditions for survival, but the species that can be found here are perfectly adapted to the extreme fluctuating conditions of drought, strong winds, frost and grazing.
In the remote, northern regions of the country driving distances are huge and harsh road conditions make overland travel laboriously slow and bone-shaking. A bumpy journey weaving around potholes with little other traffic does have the one advantage of offering the chance to view many steppe species surprisingly close-up. Bobak Marmot relax stretched-out in the sunshine on road verges, lazily watching you swerving past. Around our campsites these stocky, ginger-coloured rodents stand on their hind legs from their sandy burrow entrances, watching you cautiously and scurrying deep underground, squeaking, should you get too close.
The diversity of birds of prey on the steppe is staggering; Eagles, Kites, Buzzards and Kestrels soar and perch every few hundred metres. White Pallid Harrier hover ghost-like over the road verges hunting for mice while magnificent steppe Eagles sit poised on tree stumps surveying the horizon.
We camped wild across the steppe for the entire month of May, a wonderful opportunity to experience spring in Kazakhstan. With a completely flat horizon, the sky presents a ginormous aerial auditorium to view the fast, ever-changing weather patterns which roll in across the landscape. Standing in one place, you can see black clouds with sheets of vertical rain pouring down, flashes of fork lightning and hear rumbling thunder in front of you. Behind you is bright blue sky, white fluffy clouds and brilliant sunshine. One minute we were setting up a picnic in the sun, then 5 minutes later diving for cover of the car as huge icy hailstones battered the earth.
Tall, elegant steppe Hare leap from nowhere as you search for a camp spot, bounding ahead effortlessly along the grass track. Small, charming ground squirrels peep from their burrows, waiting until the last second to dive out of your way, inquisitively reappearing minutes later to see what’s happening.
In the warm light of sunset the carpet of tall grass swaying in the breeze turns golden and the songs of thousands of insects are amplified as the light fades. At dusk, bats swoop from nowhere and the cautious rustlings of small rodents can be heard emerging from burrows nearby, tiny voles wide-eyed when caught in our torch light.
At dawn a new chorus begins as incalculable bugs welcome the arrival of day; butterflies flitting amongst the flowers, vivid, hairy caterpillars climb the tall stems, ants march across the dry soil, bees buzzing between poppies, iridescent beetles clinging to tall grass tips and crickets and grasshoppers leaping in all directions with every step you take through the meadow.
For all the beauty and magnificence of National Parks, it is simply unbeatable to wake with the sound of a cuckoo calling, crickets chirping and an unobstructed 360 degree view of wild expanse, often without any sign of people or buildings.
Though gentle and delicate to look at, not even the might and power of a crushing soviet offensive on these peaceful pastures could tame their roots. During soviet times in the 1950’s, a vast majority of the Steppe was brutally ploughed and planted as far as the eye could see with cultivated wheat fields, with only around 20% of the original steppe preserved. Agriculture failure was widespread and has been abandoned in much of the steppe, where slowly the grassland is regenerating and nomadic pasturing has returned.