is a small town, in Chiang Rai province, next to the Mekong
river close to the famous "Golden Triangle" border
area with Myanmar and Laos. A mosaic of wetland habitats including
rice fields, fish ponds, overgrown wet areas, pools, open water
and the Mekong river make this area an excellent location for
a wide variety of resident and migratory species. The geographical
location of Chiang Saen makes it a prime site for finding birds
that are rare in Thailand and almost every year new species
are added to the Thai list from sites around the town.
The nearby non-hunting area, a lake known as Nong Bong Kai,
is one of the few sites in Thailand that receives annual congregations
of wildfowl in the "winter" and a spectacular Harrier
roost is one of the great bird spectacles of the country. The
wide nature of the sites here make a telescope an essential
piece of birding equipment but many of the areas are accessible
by car (4-wheel drive makes life easier but not essential) so
that birding can be done at a nice pace and makes it a very
suitable place for disabled birders to visit.
Brown-cheeked (Eastern Water) Rail
(Photo by Nick
birders spend a significant amount of time here but there is a lot
of potential to find many species and, given the northerly location,
there is a real possibility of finding a new addition to the Thai
list. Given this and the relaxing atmosphere of the region Chiang
Saen is a really good place to spend some time recovering from a hectic
birding schedule and at the same time continuing to find more exciting
Unfortunately, like many places in Thailand, there are problems with
both bird persecution
in this area and widespread habitat destruction along the Mekong has
rendered it an ecological disaster zone..
(Photo by Suppalak
wildfowl is the main attraction for many birders to take the
trip to Chiang Saen, where these birds often congregate in flocks
of thousands, mainly on the lake. Ruddy Shelduck are sometimes
found on both the lake and the Mekong river and Spot-billed
Duck is often easily seen on the river from Chiang Saen town
itself. Many Eurasian species of duck can be found here with
Ferruginous Duck, Baer's Pochard, Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck
being among the most interesting.
Wildfowl is not the only attraction though, with birds such
as Plain Martin, Long-billed Plover, Small Pratincole and River
Lapwing occurring here and over the years many birders have
searched for Jerdon's Bushchat in long grass in this region
with varying success.
of the most exciting aspects of birding in the Chiang Saen region
is the possibility of finding a "first" for Thailand; over
the years Bar-headed Goose, Greylag Goose, Common Crane and, most
recently, Grass Owl have been added to the national list from this
location. With so many highlights this region probably deserves three
or four days to exploit its full potential, a length of time which
few birders allocate.
checklist of the birds of this location can be found here - Chiang
Bird Watching Trips:
If you need help organizing a bird watching
trip to Thailand, take a look at the suggested itineraries
for ideas on creating a tailor-made trip and contact me
for advice: Thailand
the interactive map below to plan your route to Chiang Saen. The blue
line shows the route from Chiang Rai (Blue Pin)
to Chiang Saen is a simple affair being right on the tourist trail.
Buses leave Chiang Rai bus station quite regularly and the journey
takes an hour or so. There is also transport to and from the nearby
towns of Chiang Kong and Mae Sai where visas can be renewed with a
brief trip over the border to Myanmar.
Getting to Chiang Rai is easy too with all the nearby provincial capitals
having direct bus services. If coming from Bangkok, the Mor Chit bus
station in the north of the city is the one required to get here;
this journey will take about 12 hours!
An alternative and rather interesting method of getting to Chiang
Rai is by boat from TaTorn, taking about 2.5 hours. Boats leave from
TaTorn (it's easy to see them) once or twice a day and tickets can
be purchased at the small pier. The boats are quite small and uncomfortable;
sitting squashed up in them for almost 3 hours is not that pleasant
and if you are not the most supple person around a trip by bus may
be a better idea, however the scenery is nicer by boat. It is necessary
to take a ride into Chiang Rai from where the boat stops, but there
are songtaew drivers there ready to take you so this is easy to do.
Far better, of course, is to drive a private vehicle which will allow
birders to explore the Chiang Saen lake, Mekong river and surroundings
at their leisure. The lake is accessed by driving along highway 1016
back towards Chiang Rai for about 5 kilometres. turn left at Km 27
and continue along a small road for a further 2 Km until reaching
the lake. A smaller lake, Nong Klab, can be reached by turning left
off highway 1016 after only about 2.5 Km and continuing for 1.5 Km
along a smaller road.
is made of the Mekong River and Chiang Saen Lake but these are
both part of a large area of wetlands, most of which is under some
form of agriculture but still home to a good selection of birds. Birders
will always concentrate on the two large waterbodies, however, and
these always produce some excellent species.
River : The "Mighty" Mekong is in a
terrible state with Chinese control of water flow through their upstream
dams creating artificially high water levels at critical times of
the year, denying birds valuable feeding and breeding grounds. Having
said that the geographical location of the river means that it still
worth a look and if the water level is low enough to reveal some sand
and gravel bars then a number of interesting species can be found.
A couple of sandbars can be observed in the "winter" months
from Chiang Saen town itself and I have seen Spot-billed Duck and
Pallas's Gull whilst eating dinner here. There are good places to
observe the river further north, particularly at the "Rim Khong"
restaurant where Plain Martin and River Lapwing are often seen - just
park at the restaurant and walk to the back where great views over
the river are available; the staff are used to birdwatchers, so just
smile and make your way towards the river. South of Chiang Saen too,
towards Chiang Kong, there are places to overlook the Mekong and along
here Small Pratincole, River Lapwing, Greenshank and Ruddy Shelduck
are often seen. Spending time along the river in January and February
could turn up almost anything.
Saen Lake (Nong Bong Kai) : This
large lake is often the hiding place of large numbers of waterfowl.
Most of these are Lesser Whistling-duck but there are also usually
Garganey and Pintail with Ferruginous Pochard, Baer's Pochard, Shoveler,
Tufted Duck and sometimes Gadwall showing
up in small numbers. Lots of other wildfowl are seen here including
Common Shelduck, Mandarin Duck, Baikal Teal and
Falcated Duck, but never in large numbers
and in some years very few are seen.
This is also
a good place to see species associated with the water's edge and
a few marshy inlets always seem to hold Grey-headed Lapwing and
plenty of Snipe, both Common and Pintail. It would be interesting
to study the Snipe here to see if Swinhoe's Snipe could be detected
- it should occur according to many authors, but is almost never
recorded in Thailand.
and woodland around the lake can also be productive with Fulvous-breasted
Woodpecker occurring here (contrary to the distribution map in Robson's
Birds of Thailand), numerous Acrocephalus
Warblers and Siberian Rubythroat all present. This also seems to
be a very good place to find Eurasian Wryneck - at least I always
seem to see a few when I'm at Chiang Saen. Purple Swamphen is numerous
here and this is a regular place for a wintering Great Crested Grebe
and a couple of Water Rails, both of which are very rarely seen
This does not seem to be any place to see waterbirds any more as the
sides have been steepened. However, the surrounding paddies can hold
a few interesting species.
Wetlands : This area of wetlands also has patches
of grassland and woodland making it an excellent place to find a
large number of species. Grass Owl nests in this area and Thailand's
largest harrier roost, with over 200 birds (Eastern Marsh Harrier
& Pied Harrier), is located here. This is also the site of the
Wetlands Project, an excellent community conservation
initiative founded by Mick Davies and Dowroong Danlammajak: support
this project by visiting and paying for Mick and Dowroong's guiding
Saen Lake there are 2 nice-looking resorts to stay at, on the
northern bank of the lake, close to headquarters: Chiang Saen
Lake Hills resort and Viang
Yonok Hotel. Ian Smith, the owner of Viang Yonok has mentioned
to me that he is able to give birdwatchers a discount and he
is a supporter of the Yonok
Wetlands Project so it is worth getting in contact
with him. It is probably also possible to organise a boat trip
on to the lake with one of the park rangers, although I have
not done this and know of no-one that has done, but presumably
they have a boat so it might be worth a try.
Chiang Saen itself has a growing number of small hotels; the
Ping Rim Kong Bed & Breakfast is very pleasant.
Along the Mekong river there are some resorts which look quite
nice and have views over the river, but it is worth having dinner
in Chiang Saen at the river front where there are food stalls
serving great barbecued food: fish, chicken, pork, steak and
som tam with sticky rice for stupidly low prices. It's a nice
place to sit in the evening eating and drinking. There are a
number of other decent eating places in Chiang Saen and it is
possible to buy the Bangkok Post Newspaper here which is in
(Photo by Nick
small town of Chiang Kong is on the backpacker trail so presumably
there is some accommodation there, although I am unable to say from
personal experience as I have never been there. However, as some
of the best birdwatching on the Mekong is along the Chiang Saen
- Chiang Kong road this could also be a good place to stay.
Chiang Rai is
close enough to be a realistic option for accommodation and then
drive to the lake and then along the Mekong: Chiang
Rai Hotel Reservations.
Lake is not a National Park and there is no fee to go birdwatching
Saen Bird Checklist
Other Northern Thailand Birding Locations
Enthusiastic Monks & Visiting Experts
at Yonok Wetlands
Sign-making and binocular presentation
at Yonok Wetlands
in the Inner Gulf of Thailand
Volunteers required at Yonok Wetlands
Yonok Wetlands Project near
Is Chiang Saen Lake Shrinking?
Air Pollution in Chiang
the thumbnail photos to see larger images.
Chiang Saen is an excellent place to
add to any Northern Thailand birding tour itineraries
between the months of November to April and there are
a high number of wetland skulkers and waterfowl that
can be found which are unlikely to be seen at any other
at some suggested itineraries, Thailand
bird tours, or contact me for more
Related Blog Entries
Thailand - posted 20/02/17
Wetlands - posted 09/03/09
Attacked at Viang Yonok - Just a Myna Incident
- posted 01/06/08
Jacana - posted 29/05/08
of Thailand, 17 January to 6 February 2008
- posted 05/03/08
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