I am a failed birdwatcher. I’ve visited a place in Phuket known as Hornbill Island – twice – and somehow managed not to see any of the big-beaked tropical birds that nest here.
Koh Tapao Noi is a little island just off the southeast coast of Phuket. It’s run by the Royal Thai Navy, who about 10 years ago opened the island up to visitors to explore. The beach is sandy but small and scruffy, and there are a few ramshackle Navy-owned buildings set around a clearing.
If you walk a few metres inland you’ll spot a small dirt track. A 10-minute walk leads through jungle up to a hilltop with a lighthouse and simple dwellings for the Navy officers.
Some 50 breeding pairs of oriental pied hornbills live on the island, which the Thai Navy monitors and feeds in an effort to boost the population.
First Failed Birdwatching Trip to Hornbill Island
We decided to make a visit to the island after our friends told us about their trip there. They’d hired a longtail boat from Borrae Pier for 1,500 baht (about US$50 at current exchange rates), and arrived to see some magnificent hornbills feeding and flying around.
Borrae Pier is found in a mangrove inlet along the western edge of Cape Panwa. Our friends’ photos and descriptions of their little boat journey looked dreamy, so we hoped to have the same experience.
Except when we arrived at Borrae Pier, the inlet was more of a mud flat and the boatmen said it was impossible to go. Low tide! Our birdwatching island trip seemed to be over before we even boarded a boat.
But we were still determined to get to Tapao Noi island that day, so we carried on and drove to the eastern edge of the cape. We stopped the car at the promenade just before reaching Phuket Aquarium and walked down to the beach. We found more longtail boats for hire, and it was easy to arrange a trip. The cost: negotiated to 1,800 baht. More than what our friends paid for a longer trip, but we were getting desperate, so we accepted the price.
From here, it’s a quick 20-minute journey that took us around the peninsula where the luxury Sri Panwa resort villas rest on the hillside. Birdwatchers with telephoto lenses might want to train their cameras on the villas for a chance to spot a celebrity staying there. (Or not, because who really cares, right?)
With Phuket’s fishing port and main ferry terminal nearby, this side of Phuket is teeming with boats of all shapes and sizes. In our longtail boat, we weaved through myriad anchored vessels from tiny plastic rowboats to luxury sailing yachts to rusty old tankers before arriving to the Tapao Noi beach.
Note that there’s no pier here so prepare to hop off the side of the boat into the shallow sea and get a bit wet on arrival!
We spent a few hours on the island, walking up to the lighthouse and relaxing on the beachfront, all while peering up at the trees and sky in vain for a hornbill. Nothing spotted, we finally hopped back on the boat and sped away.
From Hornbill Watching to Hollywood Stargazing
We motored back to the beach near the Phuket Aquarium, where our boat was overtaken by a sleek black luxury yacht, which dropped anchor at the same beach. As we were hanging around the promenade we watched as a redheaded woman wearing a black lacy beach coverup was helped out of the yacht.
She sauntered ashore and as she walked past us we realised it was the TV teen queen-turned-cautionary tale … Lindsay Lohan. Checks on Hollywood gossip sites and her Instagram account confirmed that she was in Phuket at the time and staying at the Sri Panwa resort.
So while our birdwatching was a bust, we did manage to spot a celebrity! But … I didn’t take any photos of her, so I guess I’m a failed paparazzi as well.
Failed Birdwatching Trip Two to Hornbill Island
Some months later we decided to try another visit, and we knew now to consult a tide table before driving to Borrae Pier to ensure we went at a time the inlet was navigable by boat.
We arrived at the pier and found nobody there, nor at the boat and kayak rental shop across the road. Bummer! But since this is Thailand, where there’s always a way to make things happen, we asked some guys eating at the noodle shop next door. These guys just happened to be taxi drivers so they knew some of the boatmen — and after a few phone calls and price negotiations, we managed to book our trip.
The cost: 3,000 baht. Double what our friends paid for the same trip, but that was the best we could bargain. I think it’s because we were a group of five versus our friends who had just two in their group – or maybe I just have poor negotiating skills! Anyway, 600 baht per person (US$20) seemed not too outrageous for a whole afternoon of travel so we climbed aboard.
This is a longer and more scenic journey than the one we took before, taking us through the mangrove-lined inlet then around the entire cape. We travelled past Khao Khad Beach and Ao Yon Beach, past the Royal Thai Navy base, the Phuket Aquarium and the Sri Panwa cliffside resort before crossing the channel over to Tapao Noi island.
We waited and watched on the beach for a bit before heading up to the lighthouse again on the jungle path. After we spent some time at the lighthouse enjoying the views, we wandered back to the beach. When we arrived, our boatman said, “Did you see all the hornbills over there?” as he pointed to the treetops just metres away from the beach.
Nope! Our little walk inland cost us our second chance to see the hornbills, and by the time we came back to the beach they were long gone. But at least our boatman got to see them!
We travelled back to the pier feeling a bit humbled, but any sense of failure soon melted away as we glided across the calm bay, which turned into a rippling golden sheet as the sun went down. No hornbills, again, but a rewarding trip nonetheless.
How Not to Fail at Hornbill Sighting
After our two failed attempts to see the hornbills of Hornbill Island, I’ve come to these conclusions to ensure that our third try will be a success:
- Check the Phuket tide charts to plan the timing of your trip to high tide. Because boats don’t float on mud!
- Ask the boatmen when the hornbill feeding times are, or ask them to call the Navy to check. We later learned that our chance of seeing a hornbill would increase by 100% if we timed our arrival to the regular feeding times. The Navy sets out big plates of rice for the birds, who (apparently!) swoop in to eat.
- Split up your group when visiting the island to improve the chances of spotting the birds.
- Bring good binoculars to help search for the elusive birds hiding in the trees.
- Just go with my friends next time. They went, they saw, they conquered, and all for the best price!
Recommended hotels near Hornbill Island
Cape Panwa Hotel
A family-friendly resort with a gorgeous white-sand beach that you take a little cable car down the hill to reach. It’s been around for a while and has a look of classic grandeur about it.
Sri Panwa Phuket
These private pool villas crown the hilltop of Cape Panwa, offering five-star luxury and incredible panoramic views. If staying here is out of your price range, it’s worth dropping by for a meal at the Baba Pool Club to enjoy the views, or sunset cocktails at the sky-high Baba Nest bar.
Crowne Plaza Phuket Panwa Beach
This beachfront resort offers good value for families and a good range of facilities including two pools, meeting rooms, a gym, spa, kayaks and SUP boards, and sea-view restaurants. We’ve visited this resort for its well-priced Sunday brunch to gorge, swim and relax poolside.
The Cove Phuket
This charming beachfront resort has a small collection of bungalows and an excellent restaurant overlooking Ao Yon Beach. A really friendly place on one of Phuket’s lesser-known beaches.
Koh Tapao Noi – Hornbill Island
Where: Near Cape Panwa, off Phuket’s southeastern coast
What to see/do: Hornbill birds (allegedly!), trail walking, Thai Navy lighthouse, relaxing on the beach, swinging in the trees. Swimming is possible but the water’s not so clear in this area.
Cost: Longtail boat trips from 1,500 baht to 3,500 baht depending on the departure point, number of passengers and your bargaining skills.