Whether you’re a serious, seasoned birder, a casual birdwatcher or complete twitching novice who only just knows the difference between a toucan and a turkey, Prek Toal bird reserve is a nature lover’s delight, especially when it comes to bird watching.
Located on the great Tonle Sap Lake in Battambang province – but reached as a long day trip from Siem Reap town – Prek Toal core bird reserve sits adjacent to a floating fishing village of the same name. Famous for the largest breeding colonies of water birds in Southeast Asia, the protected reserve covers some 22,000 hectares.
Due to the seasonal – and dramatic – variations in water levels on the lake, the bird reserve is either dry or flooded forest, whereby the tallest trees stick out from the calm waters providing a home for an array of flying feathered friends. Cormorants, pelicans, storks and other birds make Prek Toal their seasonal habitat. People have also adapted to this unique environment; houses built on floating bamboo rafts can move easily to cope with the ebb and flow of the water levels.
A day trip to see the varied birds is best started as early as possible, both due to the distance as well as the fact the wildlife is seen at its best first thing, leaving town around 05:30. A drive to either the floating village of Chong Kneas or Mechrey leads to the embarkation point for the gentle boat ride – more than one hour – to Prek Toal village.
At Prek Toal village visitors to the bird reserve must travel with a local boat and park ranger in order to spread the benefits of tourism to communities – as such this whole trip is arranged by the Sam Vaesna Centre (SVC). They have specialist, trained birding guides and run a whole variety of birding and nature trips around Siem Reap and Cambodia. A conservation contribution of US$30 per person is levied for all their trips to go towards village funds, to build wells, roads or other developments as needed.
The boat from the village cruises to a lone observation platform in the middle of the lake. Rickety, narrow stairs need to be climbed. The reward is the viewing platform: a telescope perches at the top so you can twitch to your heart’s content. Ticking off birds on your life list should prove relatively easy here.
Lunch options are limited: a simple Khmer meal in the community-run restaurant, or bring along a packed lunch.
Prek Toal can also be visited as part of a full day’s boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, though you’ll need to arrange it privately through a tour operator to head also to the bird reserve. It is also possible to stay overnight in a basic homestay or the environmental station at Prek Toal village – more serious birders should consider this so as to take advantage of rising early out on the lake.
For those with a more general interest in nature and bird watching, specialist operators can also arrange kayaking trips combined with birding at Prek Toal; the floating village here is too far for mass tourism to reach, providing a very different experience to Chong Kneas. Otherwise, it’s worth considering a temple tour with SVC with one of their birding guides, so as to see the sites with a birding twist to an otherwise more standard temple tour.
By Caroline Major
Last updated on 22nd June, 2015.