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Birdwatching in Cambodia

March 23, 2012

Asian Openbill Stork (Photo: PlanetWildlife)

We clambered up the tree on a rickety ladder, emerging on a platform high above the wetlands. The dense understory of the swamp forest stretched out in all directions, with scattered higher trees covered with storks, cormorants, pelicans and darters. The sky was filled with birds, especially the gracefully flying Openbill Stork, the type of stork you’d expect to see bringing a baby.

This was Prek Toal Sanctuary, a birder’s paradise. The day trip was run by the Sam Veasna Center, an NGO dedicated to wildlife conservation. It was established to honour the memory of Sam Veasna, a pioneering Cambodian conservationist who died at the age of 33 after contracting cerebral malaria during fieldwork.

The Center’s guide had picked us up early for the drive from Siem Reap to the harbour, where we boarded a boat to cross Tonlé Sap, the vast lake in central Cambodia that shrinks during the dry season and expands when the rains come and water backs up from the Mekong. We were enchanted by the changing colours as the sun rose over the lake, red behind wispy clouds.

Sunrise over Tonlé Sap Lake

On the other side of the lake we travelled up the Sangkae River to the floating village of Prek Toal, where we took a smaller boat through the maze of narrow channels of the wetlands to the hide. On the way there were many birds to watch, including the Oriental Darter with its snake-like neck, useful for catching fish, and several magnificent Grey-headed Fish Eagles.

Over 150 bird species have been recorded in the reserve, and we saw several that are threatened, such as Milky Storks and Lesser Adjutants (both vulnerable) and Greater Adjutants (endangered).

Prek Toal Floating Village

We returned to the village for a delicious lunch at a floating restaurant. The whole village – houses, offices, shops and places of worship – float on drums or bamboo platforms, riding the water as its depth varies from 2 meters in the dry season to 10 meters in the wet season. Most of the villagers can only afford thatched houses, but scattered among them were homes of bare timber for middle class families and painted timber for wealthier people.

Floating Church

In May each year the river becomes choked with water hyacinth, paralysing the village. Osmose, another NGO that combines community and economic development with environmental protection, supported the women of the village to form the Saray Cooperative, making mats, baskets, bags and accessories from the dried stem of the water hyacinth. These attractive products are sold widely in Siem Reap.

Visitors to Cambodia can support conservation by donations to NGOs like the Sam Veasna Center and Osmose, or by taking their well-run tours. Apart from the Prek Toal sanctuary, Sam Veasna has a day trip to a reserve for the elegant Sarus Crane, which is rare and vulnerable, and a community-based ecotourism project in the small remote village of Tmatboey (allow three nights), with activities based around birdwatching.

If you’re planning a trip to Siem Reap, don’t think of it as just a base for the temples. It’s worth scheduling more time that the usual three or four days, and interspersing the temples with ecotours and community-based activities.

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