Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jagged Mountains, Hidden Tiger-Krabi's Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Seua)

A view of a tropical limestone karst in Krabi.

The mention of tropical limestone karsts often invokes images of majestic geological monoliths of towering heights, draped in lush emerald vegetation interspersed with the oft-exposed dolomite cliffs tainted to shades of earth and soot by the accumulated detritus from calcicolous cliff-hanging plants. And if the tropics in conversation refers to Southeast Asia, a handful of locations spring to mind-notably: Vietnam's Halong Bay, Laos' Luang Prabang Karsts, Malaysia's Mulu Caves and Thailand's Andaman Coast, among others.

The town of Krabi as viewed from Wat Tham Suea's peak temple.

In this collection of breathtaking locations, the quaint town of Krabi smacks right at the heart of the Land of Smiles' heavily-touristed Southern Provinces. This peaceful town is undeniably synonymous with limestone towers; more so after the widely published panorama of Koh Hong and Koh Phi Phi, islands off the shore of mainland Krabi, which characterise in stunning cliff-islands in turquoise waters that defies imagination and borders on fantasy.

Limestone hills adorn the lands beyond Krabi as seen from the Wat Tham Suea.

Up on land, the jaw-dropping factor does not ebb as cultivated lowlands give way to gigantic karsts rising hundreds of meters into the sky. One of these towers is home to the sacred Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Temple). Spotting this temple is not a difficult task as its conspicuous gold Buddha and Stupa can be seen perching atop the mountain's peak from miles away. The fact that this temple is connected to the base of the karst via a very long series of steps opens up the possibility for the public visiting it for religious and aesthetic reasons (that is, its commanding 360 degree view of the plains below and mountains beyond), as well as (in my case) to study the hill's interesting ecology.

The stairs leading to the hilltop temple is dizzying and considering the terrain and height on which it is built, one wonders how people managed to achieve such a construction feat.

It is rare that researchers could have a chance to examine a tropical fengcong-fenglin karst right from the mountain's base up to the very tip of its peak.  An opportunity in the form of the 1237 steps to the hilltop temple greatly enhance accessibility for scientists to analyse every layer of ecological niches in reference to altitudinal changes.

While ascending this unmistakably long flight of stairs, most people will first notice the steep and rather thin steps in sections along the way. Coupled with the dizzying heights and almost vertical cliffs, ascending the mountain may be the last thing on an acrophobe's mind. However, with endemic and rare wildlife and plantlife adorning its marble cliffs, enthusiasm eludes fear of heights!

The following is a list of interesting things found during the survey:

An unidentified shrub, most probably a calcicolic (limestone-loving) plant.

Chrita spesies, this genus belongs to the family Gesneriacea, which includes many ornamental plants including the African violets.

Paraboea sp., a perennial plant which leaves will dry during dry seasons and regenerate when rains arrive.

More unidentified plant!

Even more!

This herb is another limestone-loving plant similar to that found in Gua Kandu about a year ago.

A long tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) belonging to a resident troop which resides along the lower levels of the stairs. These guys know how to get downhill the fast way-by sliding down the railings!

Another Paraboea sp. Paraboeas are limestone specialists and can be found across mainland Southeast Asia.

More Chrita sp.!

An unidentified Paraboea(?). This species was also discovered by the author of this blog: Hort Log.

This is the unmistakable limestone-loving plant- Monophyllaea sp. It is a limestone-endemic genus and  the Sundaland region is its epicenter.

Another Chrita sp. This genus seems to be common in southern Thailand's karsts.

An unidentified grasshopper on limestone soils. Some insects on these hills are endemic because of their specialised adaptation to the unusual karst environment.

More identified species. This one is found on exposed rock face some 100 metres above ground level.

The weathered limestone exhibits craggy texture encrusted in dark moss and lichen carpets. These crevices are prime habitats for endemic micro-land snails.

More Chrita sp.! This time, of a maroon leaved variety. Is this the same or different species from the previous Chrita plants?

A breathtaking view of the oil-palm covered plains below-A perfect way to take a breath after the laborious climb.

Another unidentified plant!

Another Chrita species, of dark purple flowers?

A dark limestone pinnacle.

A closeup of another limestone pinnacle. Note the sharp edges of the weathered rock.
This is the primary barrier to exploration on limestone hills.

A limestone bamboo species,Dendrocalamus sp., which lives some 100 metres short of the karst mountain's exposed peak.

Another endemic, Pandanus calcis, which is found only on the karsts from Surat Thani (in the north) to Krabi (in the south). This specimen is flanked by the Dendrocalamus bamboo.

Another specimen of the Calcicolic Pandan mentioned above. Note that this is a cousin of the popular herb Frangrant Pandan or Screwpine, Pandanus amaryllifolius, which is used in Southeast Asian cuisine as an aromatic condiment.

An unidenified fern flank by Paraboea sp., on weathered rocks.

Another Gesneriacid (meaning a member of family Gesneriacea,), clinging to a rock crevice.

An unidentified plant living on the edge of the cliff face near the mountain peak.

Anothert plant belonging to the species seen earlier.

A Capparis sp.(?) found living on limestone at the side of the peak temple.

An insect found on the peak temple.

Of course, as any exploration of limestone localities, a dash of molluscan flavour to the tastes of discovery is not far away. With such variety of endemic and rare flora, comes a list of terrestrial snails of equal status.

A set of macro molluscs found during the survey. Species includes: Cyclophorus zebrinus,Hemiplecta siamensis, Macrochylamys amboinensis, Rhiostoma smithi and Plectopylis achatina.

Cyclophorus zebrinus (Benson 1836)

Hemiplecta siamensis (Pfeiffer 1856)

Rhiostoma smithi (Bartsch 1932)

Rhiostoma smithi (Bartsch 1932), apertural view.

Plectopylis achatina (Gray 1834)

Coming back to the aesthetic side of things, the final 1237th step is as great a welcome as the cool drinking water served. Coupled with commanding vistas of the Krabi country sprawling before my exhausted eyes (after straining for 2 whole hours, searching for calcicolic (limestone-loving) critters!), this could easily be one of the best limestone-hill climbs around.

A view of the hilltop temple; notice the weathered limestone pinnacles on which the temple is built on and around.

Looking across a forested saddle (a lower area connecting two limestone peaks) from the hilltop temple, one could see the profuse vegetation adorning the cliffs of another peak.

Stunted trees reminiscent of bonsai plants clinging to the shallow soils and crevices of the limestone peak.

The stark contrast between cultivated plains and forested karsts that are so common in Krabi is evident from this view to the East.

As for how the temple got its name, I'll leave that for you to find out!

PS: Due to the difficulty in accessing information on Southern Thailand's limestone flora species, I have only resorted to the following sources for information. Please do inform me if you have any useful information on the above plants' identification. Your help is greatly appreciated!

Useful references:
1. St. John, H. , 1963. Revision of the Genus Pandanus Stickman, Part 16. Species Discovered in Thailand and Vietnam. Pac Sci 17(4): 466-492.
 (Link: )

2.The Gesneriad Reference Map. (Link: )


Dreamer said...

Hi Siput Expert,
I was in Krabi about a decade ago but was ignorant about limestone plants then.

Langkawi itself has a few similar species of gesneriads and also the paraboea.

If you could send a slightly larger resolution to my email address, i could ask for some help to id those limestone plants. In which, i was told always that identifying a plant from a picture is not necessary accurate.

JK said...

Hi WChinner,

Thank you for alerting me on the id issue. I'll work on it as soon as possible!

Limestone areas like Krabi and Langkawi are biodiversity hotspots for endemic and rare plants.

Thanks again for your help, WChinner!

Cat-from-Sydney said...

Wow! I admire your commitment to biodiversity and your physical prowess...I mean all those climbing of hills and karst and all.... My Mama was in forestry many decades ago but left for a more sedentary workplace. Too bad, eh? Maybe she shouldn't. Thanks for the identification of the shellfish. purrr....meow!

Karst Naturalist said...

Hi Junn,

Wow.. I hope I can go to Krabi, explore and collecting snail next time..

JK said...

It's surely a great place for malacologists, Karst!