October 2010 saw us flying out to Southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. We spent two weeks of this month - the monsoon season in this part of Asia - trekking night and day through the rainforest in search of reptiles. We turned up 16 species of snake, including green cat snakes, peninsular pit vipers and reticulated pythons.
Herping South Thailand and Malaysia, 2010
Trip report by Matt Minchin
Early 2010 Tom Charlton and myself sat down to begin planning a herping trip for later on in the year. Because we were only going to have a maximum of 15 days, we decided on heading to a spot that we were familiar with, so that we could make the most of the trip. We would fly to Bangkok, head south to Krabi province and then on to Langkawi island, Malaysia. The months passed quickly, and it was not long before the trip was finally upon us. Our bags were packed (including the all important sets of tongs, hooks and snake bags) and we were ready to make our journey over to Thailand. After a long flight we finally arrived at our first destination, Bangkok. As this was to be a relatively short trip it was agreed we should make the most of our days, so after checking into a guest house along the tourist hot-spot Khao San road and experiencing our favourite Thai dishes it was time to get some well deserved R&R in preparation for the coming days!
Upon waking we decided to check out the famous Chatuchak weekend market, one of the largest markets in the world that covers an area of 27 acres and contains upwards of 15,000 stalls offering everything from food, arts and crafts and even animals. Unfortunately, in the animal section we discovered many wild-caught snakes, often in deteriorating conditions. There was however, many shops offering a wide selection of healthy captive bred species. Regardless, we were still very optimistic to see some of these species thriving in the wild! Upon returning to our guest house we booked our bus to leave that night. Our chosen destination was to be the beautifully scenic Krabi province, southern Thailand.
After our 16-hour long bus journey, we had finally exchanged the bright urban lights of Bangkok for beautiful rural Krabi. We hired a 4x4, threw our bags in the back and drove up to the picturesque Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort, one location of Tom's previously successful herping trips.
After unpacking our bags we sat down to eat in the resort's restaurant only to be disturbed by some movement in the rafters of the wooden eatery. Sure enough we were about to encounter our first snake, within the first hour of arriving - a paradise tree snake, Chrysopelea paradisi. This particular species is uncommon within its range so needless to say this was a very welcome first catch! Paradise tree snakes are easily recognisable by the uniform red spots stretching along the dorsal of the snake, from head to tail, and this aggressive rear-fanged venomous species also makes for fun handling, being extremely quick and arboreal in nature. A further search of the wooden rafters proved fruitless, however it was clear to see the allure of the restaurant roof for snakes as there was an abundance of geckos, a food source for a wide variety of species. We finished dinner and decided to check the other buildings around the resort. After spotting many sloughed skins hanging from the rafters, our efforts were rewarded with a juvenile golden flying snake, Chrysopelea ornata, the more commonly occurring cousin of the paradise tree snake.
We made every effort to herp around the mountain resort as much as possible. Being on the edge of a patch of rainforest and harbouring a long stretch of stream, makes the resort a great location to search for many different species. With this in mind it was important to look absolutely everywhere. We search the stream, and managed to spot and catch a puff-faced water snake, Homalopsis buccata. This rear-fanged species were spotted regularly along the small pockets of water up and down the waterfall and were fairly easy to spot, as they tended to lay dormant with just their heads out of the water. On the same night Tom managed to spot a large mangrove snake, Boiga dendrophila, high up in the overhanging trees, and this was to be one of the most entertaining captures of the trip! We located a long pole, and a gentle tap on the tail resulted in the snake leaping into the water. Tom followed suit and somehow managing to locate it underwater! Very entertaining viewing I must say, and a great find. This was to be one of three Boiga species we would encounter on the trip.
During our time in Krabi, we had chance to meet up with Vern, an American friend who lives in Thailand. Vern, owner of www.thailandsnakes.com, took us to some great local spots and spent some time herping with us back at Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort. He is good friends with the owner of the local snake park in Ao Nang, so we spent an enjoyable afternoon there. This gave us chance to work with many local species that were being housed at the park, including a large 12ft king cobra, Ophiophagus hannah.
The final find before we left for pastures new was similar in excitement. Another search of the restaurant rafters resulted in spotting a snake 'wedged' into a corner, making it impossible to get to. This was pretty infuriating as we also struggled to get a positive I.D on the species, with a green flank being the only view we had. After finishing dinner we looked in the same corner only to see the snake gone, however upon shining my torch around the trees I spotted a green cat snake, Boiga cyanea, climbing down from the roof! A lucky find to cap off a very successful first leg of the trip!
After thanking the very hospitable resort staff at Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort it was time to continue our trip down through peninsular Thailand and over the border into Malaysia, our eventual destination being Langkawi Island. We caught a bus south to the ferry port of Satun, and took the 75 minute boat journey to Kuah pier. A popular holiday location with Malay people due to its tax free status, Langkawi is situated just 30 kilometres off Malaysia's west coast in the Andaman Sea.
As soon as we arrived, our attentions turned to finding a car to rent for a few days. After asking around at the jetty, we found a local man called Malik who told us he had a car to rent. Malik spoke very little English and was a bit too naïve, taking no form of I.D from either of us and no deposit. His trust was rewarded though as we took good care of his Perodua Kancil. Our trust did not extend to the Kancil, however, with both me and Tom agreeing it would have been comparable to an empty drinks can in the event of a crash (or minor accident).
It must be said that local knowledge is a powerful tool when looking for snakes and after a visit to the local snake park on Langkawi, we were informed of the large population of popes pit vipers, Popeia popeiorum, that inhabit the islands highest peak, Gunung Raya. With this
knowledge we made the decision to take a drive up the winding, 11km long mountain road at dusk. Adopting a lazy attitude, we decided to herp from the comfort of the car, driving up at low speeds with the passenger preparing to jump out and catch any snakes crossing or basking on the asphalt. This seemed a great idea, however, we didn't account for the safety system of the Perodua Kancil; after spotting a snake crossing the road and braking suddenly, on went the automatic locking system. Needless to say it was a panicked scramble out of the car to identify the first catch on Langkawi, another green cat snake, Boiga cyanea. With a little rain gradually forming we decided to continue up and down the mountain road a couple more times, this resulted in the catch of the previously forecast Popes pit viper. Popes pit vipers were to be a common occurrence on Langkawi with six being found in total. Road cruising up and down Gunung Raya also revealed a few unexpected yet welcome catches. The first of which was a Muellers blind snake, Typhlops muelleri, spotted by Tom after seeing some movement in a patch of leaves. After this we were extra vigilant. This small snake also resulted in us stopping and checking lots of worms, just incase.....! Another unexpected find was a Malayan soft-shelled turtle, Dogania subplana, caught crossing the road late one evening during light rain.
Night times were generally spent driving up and down the road of Gunung Raya, and in the day we would trek along Telaga Tujuh, also known as the 'seven wells' waterfall. Our first trek along Telaga Tujuh was at night, which may have possibly resulted in me falling over several times and one near death experience involving a slip, a slide, and an 8ft drop..... possibly.... So, after health and safety intervened it was decided we would tackle the river only in daylight hours!
With many different species occurring on Langkawi it was again important to look everywhere - in the trees, into small pockets of slow moving water, low lying bushes, and under rocks. The first species we encountered along the Telaga Tujuh stream was a reticulated python, Python reticulatus, in the overhanging trees. This was a species I was really hoping to experience in the wild as I have always appreciated their behaviour as well as their stunning colours and beautiful pattern. Needless to say I was extremely pleased when I spotted this snake curled up in the trees. Getting it down was another matter! After adopting the same method as the mangrove snake capture used in Krabi province, a gentle tap on the tail resulted in the snake uncoiling and jumping into the fast moving stream. A mad scramble to locate it in the water ensued, and we eventually had the feisty 6 ft specimen in our grasp. Telaga Tujuh also yielded a particularly aggressive red-tailed racer, Gonyosoma oxycephalum. Highly distinguishable by their red tail, neon blue tongue, and ability to flatten their necks when threatened, this catch was certainly a welcomed find, at the end of one of our otherwise snake-less treks!
Our last night of cruising the Gunung Raya road resulted in one of our favourite finds of the trip, the appropriately named beautiful pit viper, Cryptelytrops venustus, and judging by this particular specimen Langkawi harbours a fairly dark phase of this stunning viper. After a highly successful tour of Langkawi, it was time to return to Krabi.
Despite Langkawi hosting a huge array of herpetofauna, it was great to finally arrive back in Krabi for a little more herping before our eventual return to the U.K. Our first port of call was back to Ao Nang snake park, where we also had chance to catch up with Vern again.
It was clear to see the guys at the snake park had an affinity with snakes and were experts in their habits and behaviours. After speaking to them it is plain to see that they have a love and passion for snakes and performing 'snake shows' is just a way to make ends-meet. Snake parks receive a lot of bad press, and with high turn over rates and animals often in poor or deteriorating conditions it is clear to see why. However I’m happy to say the snakes we worked with at this particular park at the time were all in good condition.
We spent our last few nights at Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort, and managed to find several more species before leaving. This included a very large dog-toothed cat snake, Boiga cynodon, which was found late one evening, cruising along the ground in a disused plantation. This snake was not the typical colour of the dog- toothed cat snake, as it was very dark, almost black.
After a fantastic 14 days herping it was finally time to return to the U.K. A total of 22 snakes were caught, covering 14 species; successful herping by any standard! Along with the many species of snake found, several species of frog, lizard and turtle were also encountered, including Asian water monitors (Varanus salvator), banded slender- toed geckos (Cyrtodactylus pulchellus), tokay geckos (Gekko gecko) and Malaysian horned frogs (Xenophrys aceras).
Life list (Snakes)
Krabi Province, southern Thailand
Paradise tree snake, Chrysopelea paradisi
Golden tree snake, Chrysopelea ornata
Mangrove snake, Boiga dendrophila
Green cat snake, Boiga cyanea
Puff-faced water snake, Homalopsis buccata
Sun-beam snake, Xenopeltis unicolor
Dog-toothed cat snake, Boiga cynodon
Triangle keelback, Xenochrophis trianguligera
Langkawi island, Malaysia
Siamese pit viper, Trimeresurus fucatus
Green cat snake, Boiga cyanea
Muellers blind snake, Typhlops muelleri
Reticulated python, Python reticulatus
Red-tailed racer, Gonysoma oxycephalum
Beautiful pit viper, Cryptelytrops venustus
Puff-faced water snake, Homalopsis buccata
Rainbow water snake, Enhydris enhydris