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Bird watchers in Sabah, Malaysia
Bird watchers in Sabah, Malaysia. Image courtesy of David Hogan, used with permission.

Malaysian photographer and travel blogger David Hogan Jr. gives us this first-hand look at the best places to watch birds in the wild throughout Southeast Asia. To see more of David’s award-winning writing and photography, visit his blog Malaysia-Asia, or visit his social media profiles on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google Plus.

Bird watching has always been around for decades, but has always been considered a unique hobby till today. In the last decade, with the emergence of social media and online platforms, more people around the world have now discovered the joy of watching birds in the wild.

That growth has been most obvious in Southeast Asia, as more bird watchers have taken advantage of the high currency exchange rates and the much cheaper cost of bird watching in this region.

Countries around Southeast Asia followed suit by investing in infrastructure, and by training bird guides over the years. Though some places are still considered remote, there are still specialists that offer bird watching tours to these places.

We compiled this list of best bird watching spots in Southeast Asia based on the popularity of the locations, availability of the proper bird guides and the condition of the local tourism infrastructure.

Black-and-red Broadbill in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi, Thailand
Black-and-red Broadbill in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi, Thailand. Jason Thompson/Creative Commons
Spectacled barwing at Ma Klang Hill, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Spectacled barwing at Ma Klang Hill, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Image courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Thailand

Thailand is quite well known for bird watching and with 96 National Parks, 48 Wildlife Sanctuaries and a number of Non-Hunting areas, Forest Parks and Biosphere Reserves, there are many birding spots all over the country where birds can be seen all year round.

There are almost 1000 species of birds found all over Thailand in the many different regions. This will make bird watching very interesting as you need to move around in different conditions.

Currently, Thailand has six main regions which are all equally great for bird watching. Most birders like to visit Southern Thailand, as there are many birds on their list that can be spotted around this part. It is also one of the migratory fly through paths too. In Thailand, it is also best to engage a professional bird guide if you want to spot the rare species.

Find out more: Southeast Asia’s Wildlife and Where to Find It

Eagle flying over water in Langkawi Island, Malaysia
Eagle flying over water in Langkawi Island, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Malaysia Tourism.

Malaysia

Malaysia is home to over 650 bird species which are found in both Peninsular Malaysia and over on Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island. Bird watching in Malaysia is considered relatively new as it has only been popular since 10 years ago in Sabah, and only less than five years in Peninsular Malaysia.

The leader for bird watching activities is no other than Sabah Borneo as they have been aggressively promoting bird tourism since 2010 and have been participating in various international bird fairs around the world.

One of the rarest bird to spot is no other than the Bornean Bristlehead from Sabah, Borneo. (Read about endemic birds in Sabah, Borneo.) Notable bird watching location in Malaysia are found at Danum Valley, SabahTaman Negara, PahangLangkawi Island, KedahMantanani Island in Sabah, and the Rainforest Discovery Center, Sabah.

There are other places, but the infrastructure is still underdeveloped and is slowly making progress. Tourism Malaysia has shown interest in the last couple of years, and have come out with bird watching brochures to promote this hobby.

Sulawesi, Indonesia
Sulawesi myzomela at Gunung Mahawu, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Sergey Yeliseev/Creative Commons

Indonesia

One of the most amazing places to do bird watching is no other than Indonesia. With over 17,000 islands, it is a paradise for bird watchers. Indonesia also boasts of over 1500 species of birds spread well around the entire archipelago.

Some of the notable spots include the eastern side of Indonesia towards Papua, while others include Kalimantan and even Sumatra. Due to the bird poaching activities over the last few decades, islands like Java have less birds too.

Start your Indonesia bird-watching trips at Bali IslandSulawesi and Flores, and work your way to the smaller, more remote islands.

If you’re a serious birder, you should engage a very reputable bird guide when you are in Indonesia. Especially a local that can speak English and Bahasa Indonesia, and is well experienced. To see half of the birds would take you a long time, hence it is best to go region by region.

Spot-billed pelican at Battambang, Cambodia
Spot-billed pelican at Battambang, Cambodia. Adam/Creative Commons

Cambodia

Another up and coming birding destination is Cambodia with over 600 species of birds to spot which include critically endangered, endangered and threatened species included. Bird guides here are professional and well knowledgeable and speak English well.

There are many tour companies taking advantage of bird tourism here but offering professional tours that take you to the best birding spots in Cambodia. Florican Grasslands, Tonle Sap, Phnom Kulen National Park and Core Bird Reserve Prek Toal are just a few of the possibilities for bird watchers in Cambodia.

There are many other bird watching sites found all over Cambodia, and when you book the tours, different companies may offer different routes. Remember, it is not recommended to go on your own due to some locations that are still infested with land mines. Safety before birding!

Juvenile egret in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Singapore
Juvenile egret in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Singapore. Melvin Yap/Creative Commons

Singapore

In one of the smallest countries in the world, you can find an astounding 350 species of birds on the island of Singapore.

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership recognised the island’s Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve as an internationally important site for migratory bird conservation, where rare migratory birds such as the Nordmann’s Greenshank and the Chinese Egret can be spotted during the migratory season between September and March, the best time to experience bird-watching in the republic.

Other notable places to do bird watching in Singapore are Ubin Island, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Kranji Reservoir Marshes. If all else fails, there is always the Jurong Bird Park which boasts of over 5000 birds (both local and international) from 400 species.

These pages by the Nature Society Singapore and the Singapore National Parks Board explain the richness and scope of the avian wildlife in this compact island nation.

Inle Seagull at Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Seagull at Inle Lake, Myanmar. Romain Savel/Creative Commons

Myanmar

One of the latest ASEAN countries to embark on bird watching tourism is Myanmar. With professional help, they have moved up in ranks to offer international standards to bird watching. Guides have been well trained to handle foreign bird watchers too.

Myanmar also boasts of 1,035 species birds, the most in Indochina and is a booming industry now due to the unspoiled terrain all over Myanmar. You can do mountains, beaches, forest and lake birding, depending on where you want to go.

Start with Inle Lake and Bagan, and then go to sites further off the beaten path like Oxbow Lake in Hukaung Valley and Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park.

Avoid going birding on your own; it is highly recommended you book a professional bird watching tour here as bird guides are well trained and know how to cater to foreigners.

Black-collared starling native to Brunei
Black-collared starling native to Brunei. cuatrok77/Creative Commons

Brunei

Truly one of the less visited destination for bird watching, Brunei is also home to 465 species of birds and four endemics.

There are a few main places to do bird watching and only a small handful of bird guides in the kingdom. Luckily, you can engage some of the Sabah bird guides for your trip as they are just located a couple of hours away.

The most popular destination is the Ulu Temburong National Park where a whopping 114 species of birds have been spotted around here.

Find out more: Learn about the nature parks near Brunei’s Tutong Cultural Experience