Ao Phang Nga National Park

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Ao Phang Nga National Park (pronounced ow-PUNG-nah) spans over 400 square kilometers, making it the largest marine national park in Thailand. The park consists of intertidal mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs and tropical islets. It was declared a national park in 1981 and ranks among the most frequented parks in the south.

Most tourists come to this park to see Koh Tapoo, otherwise known as “James Bond Island”, a towering  pillar of limestone jutting out of the sea made famous by the James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun”. Other attractions nearby include the “Chao Lay” village (known locally as “Koh Panyee”) and Khai Island, popular among snorkelers for its dazzling coral and abundance of colorful, tropical fish. There are also a number of eco tours which take tourists around the limestone islands to see the unique “hongs” and view the diverse wildlife in the area.

Apart from its value as a tourist attraction, Ao Phang Nga is also home to the largest block of mangrove forest Thailand and acts as a nursery for many valuable commercial fish species and crustaceans. Numerous shrimp and fish farms are present along the network of estuaries which drain into the bay and its importance to the local seafood industry cannot be underestimated.


Birding

Main Attractions: Brown Winged Kingfisher, Mangrove Pitta,  Black and Red Broadbill
Other Attractions: Streak breasted Woodpecker, Rufous bellied Swallow, Ruddy Kingfisher, Oriental Pied Hornbill

Due to its mature mangrove forests, Ao Phang Nga National Park offers birders a chance to experience Thailand’s mangrove bird species, most of which can be found at either the mangrove nature walkway outside of Phang Nga town, the mangrove walkway near the national park office or the mangrove nature trail at Baan Bang Phat.

Mangrove Pitta is the most sought-after bird found in mangrove habitats. The bird is present all year round but that doesn’t mean finding it is anything easy; my theory is that the bird is active with the rising and falling of the tide and if you don’t get the timing right you will most likely miss the bird completely.

The next two “must haves” are the Brown Winged Kingfisher and Ruddy Kingfisher. Both species are residents of the national park office compound. Brown winged Kingfisher is easy to find in the early morning, usually along the canal or on the trees overhanging the river. Listening for their calls will make it easier to locate them. Ruddy Kingfisher is a little more tricky and is usually present in the mangrove patch on the right side after entering the park compound. It doesn’t always respond to playback and playing hours of tape won’t make a difference. On numerous occasions I have found it sitting very quietly just a few feet off the ground in the trees near the road.

Another bird which is regularly found around the mangrove boardwalks is the Black and Red Broadbill, perhaps the most scarce of all broadbills in Thailand. There are at least two pairs which breed in the area but they are not always present throughout the day.

The dark, black mud and intertidal mudflats are magnets for waders, egrets and herons of all shapes and sizes.  Little, Intermediate and Great Egret are commonplace and the rare Chinese Egret is sure to exist here as well. When the tide recedes, waders are all too easy to spot as they feed along the estuaries and mudflats; Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Common Sandpiper, Bar tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone and Pacific Golden Plover are just a sampling of what can found.

Though it is yet to be recorded, I would not be surprised if Great billed Heron is also a resident in the area.

The bay is good for birds such as Lesser Frigatebird, Pied and Green Imperial Pigeons, Brahminy Kite, White bellied Sea Eagle and a few species of tern. Keep an eye open for specialties such as Sooty Tern and Christmas Island Frigatebird. Pomarine Skua, known by the local fishermen, may be a seasonal visitor and appears from time to time.

Edible nest Swiftlets, valued for their saliva nests which are used to make bird nest soup, are residents of Viking Cave, a popular tourist destination in Phang Nga Bay. The collection of these bird nests is a multi-million dollar industry which is cloaked in secrecy and fiercely guarded by wealthy and influential locals, many of whom are willing to use lethal force to protect their interests.

Other residents of the limestone karsts include Striated Swallow, Rufous bellied Swallow, Red Rumped Swallow, Blue Whistling Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush.

In the evening, Pink necked and Orange breasted Pigeons can sometimes be seen in flight heading to their favorite roosting spots.

Other birds seen in the mangroves or found in the park include Pied Hornbill, Giant Hornbill, Copper throated Sunbird, Black hooded Oriole, Little Heron, Collared, Black Capped, Ashy Tailorbird, Black Hooded Oriole, Black bellied Malkoha, Common and White throated Kingfisher, Buffy Fish Owl and Mangrove Whistler.

Some birders have reported seeing Mangrove Blue Flycatcher in the area. While the habitat is certainly suitable and should support a thriving population of this species, I do have some doubts regarding the accuracy of these sightings. There has not been a reliable record for this species at this site in well over a decade. Birders should be very careful to not confuse this species with sightings of other resident or migrating Cyornis flycatchers.

Trails and Birding Sites

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The two main birding areas in this park are centered around the Mangrove Park near Phang Nga town and the national park headquarters near the jetty to Koh Panyee. The other mangrove nature trail, located near Baan Bang Phat, is reviewed in a separate post.

The mangrove park, located across from Pra Srinakarin Municipal Park, is a small patch of mangrove with a cement walkway built through it. It also acts as the head office for a mangrove replanting station. The park was once a part of a larger patch of mangrove but is now a literal island of forest surrounded by residential and commercial buildings. I doubt it will continue to be a suitable habitat for mangrove birds in the future.

Birds recorded here in the past include the Mangrove Pitta, Brown Winged Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, Buffy Fish Owl, Black and Red Broadbill, Golden bellied Gerygone, Yellow eared Spiderhunter and White chested Babbler. However, at most times of the day, the area will be deathly silent, mostly due to the high level of disturbance and sound pollution which surrounds this oasis. Despite its downsides, I make it a habit to check on it every time I pass through the area. It only takes a few minutes to walk through and listen for calls and there are odd moments when something interesting will show up so it’s worth the while.

The second location is at the Ao Phang Nga National Park office. This area is still the best spot in the south to find the Mangrove Pitta and Brown winged Kingfisher. Birds encountered in the area include all the birds seen at the mangrove park near Phang Nga town, with the addition of  Black and Red Broadbill, Black Hooded Oriole, Black bellied Malkoha, Mangrove Whistler, White bellied Sea Eagle, Brahminy Kite, Collared Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, Pacific Swallow, Red bellied Swallow, Oriental Magpie Robin, Golden bellied Gerygone, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Large billed Crow, White rumped Munia and other birds.

The park management recently decided to remove all staff houses from the area and rehabilitate the forest and to return the area to its natural state. This decision has fared well for the wildlife and birds. Plans to construct an elevated mangrove nature trail have also been approved by the Head Office in Bangkok and once complete should allow birders to fully partake of all this park has to offer – with of course, a slight adjustment to the park entry fees.


Accommodations and Fees

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Ao Phang Nga National Park Office has two modern bungalows which are relatively new. These bungalows come with air conditioning, a surprise since many of the DNP bungalows still use ceiling fans. The price on the web is listed as 1000 baht a night, although I assume walk-ins would be charged more, especially on weekends and holidays.

For those who prefer softer mattresses and air conditioning, the Phung Nga Hotel on the corner of the intersection on the main highway just a block or so down the road offers hot showers, air-conditioned rooms and “buffet” breakfast for a mere 700 baht a night (for two persons).

The park operates a nice restaurant which serves delicious, fresh seafood and other local dishes.

[To reserve a DNP bungalow at Ao Phang Nga National Park, click here]

There is a checkpoint in front of the main office of Ao Phang Nga and birders are now requested to sign their names into a logbook. The park does not charge and entry fee (at the moment) but once the developments are complete I can bet my bottom dollar there will be a fee levied on all birders visiting the site. I hope that it will not reflect the hefty 400 baht fee tourists are currently paying to visit Koh Panyee or James Bond Island.

Alternative Recommended Tour

A boat trip through the mangroves is a good way to really comprehend the magnitude of this national park. Boats can be hired from the pier for 1500 baht for two persons (as of 2017). This trip will last around 3 hours and will take you through the mangroves, out into the bay and around Koh Panyee and James Bond Island. The trip is both memorable and educational and helps to shed light on the magnificence of this park.

The main attraction of this trip would have to be the amazing limestone formations and natural vegetation which thrives in this environment. It’s a terrific way to see the park without going through the mainstream tourist channels as it is somewhat off the beaten track and more of a custom tour. Birdwatchers will find this trip somewhat of a bore however, as the mangroves can be rather silent and few birds will be encountered on the trip.

The best times to make this trip are from November to April when the seas are calm and there is less chance of rain and choppy seas.


Directions to Ao Phang Nga National Park

If you are coming from Phuket, drive east towards Phang Nga town on Highway 4. About five kilometers before Phang Nga town, there will be a T-junction. Phung Nga Hotel will be on your right. Turn right at the junction and follow the road (Highway 4144) to the national park office, which will be on your left hand. If one continues to follow the road, it will lead to a pier where one can rent a longtail boat to Koh Panyee, Koh Pai or Koh Tapoo. Birding around here is quite good sometimes as well.

This is a close up of the road to the main headquarters of Ao Phang Nga National Park. To get a better idea of the surrounding area, please zoom out by pressing Ctrl on your keyboard and scrolling with your mouse.

The alternative mangrove walkway is outside Phang Nga town. If coming from Phuket, drive past the Phung Nga Hotel on Highway 4 until to reach the next T-junction which will take you to Krabi. Turn right at the intersection. The mangrove walkway will be scarcely 20 meters past the junction to your right. On the map it is located south of Highway 415. Pra Srinakarin Municipal Park is directly across from the site.


Personal Opinion

Pros: Still the best site in Phang Nga for finding Mangrove Pitta, Brown winged Kingfisher and Black and Red Broadbill; very easy access from main highway; free entry to the national park; wide choice of accommodations and dining options nearby.

Cons: Mangrove nature trail not completed; quiet on most days; mangrove park near Phang Nga town is severely encroached upon and very disturbed, making it a poor habitat for birds; pollution is rampant at both sites; target birds are not always present.

Ao Phang Nga is not the thriving bird paradise it once was in the past, but it’s still the best site in Thailand for twitching the local mangrove specialties. Those who choose their timing wisely and arrive primed with persistence and an ample supply of patience will find themselves rewarded accordingly.

This page was last updated in February, 2018.

Useful Links

Department of National Parks: Ao Phang Nga information and datasheet
Lonely Planet: A review of Ao Phang Nga National Park

Ao Phang Nga National Park in Photos