Whether you’re a bird watcher, simple nature lover or culture vulture, there’s something to intrigue and enthral at Prek Toal, a floating fishing village on the far side of the Tonle Sap lake, and also home to one of the most important colonies of water birds in Southeast Asia.
Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve is a roughly 22,000 hectare area protected as part of the Tonle Sap UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This means that conservation and sustainable development must be key considerations when addressing issues concerning the lake and its wider ecology. It is also home to as many as 150 species of birds, seven of which have been identified as globally important thanks to their endangered status.
Beside the core area, a floating fishing village of the same name is the staging post for entry into the reserve, after a gentle one-hour boat journey takes you across the lake from either Mechrey or Chong Kneas. Prek Toal is one of the wealthier villages on the Tonle Sap, though that is still a relative thing. According to the UNDP and other agencies, communities living on or by the lake are among the poorest in Cambodia.
Here you’ll find ingeniously structured floating homes, shops, gardens and fish farms that rise and fall with the ebb and flow of the Tonle Sap. The community is able to move the entire village in order to keep the shoreline in sight. The Tonle Sap is subject to the powerful flows of the Mekong River, which every may or June are strong enough to force the Tonle Sap River to reverse its course, flowing back into the lake. The lake’s depth varies by as much as 10 metres and its surface area can expand from 2,500 square kilometres up to as much as 16,000 square kilometres. This unique variation is one of the reasons the Tonle Sap Lake is the most productive inland fishery in the world, drawing all of those birds and of course the fishers whose lives depend upon the vital life source beneath the waves.
A day trip to see the varied birds is generally best started as early as possible, both due to the distance and the time it takes to traverse it, as well as the fact the wildlife is seen at its best early in the day. At Prek Toal, visitors transfer to locally owned boats, and a park ranger is assigned to the tour. The rangers are trained by the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the key drivers behind the conservation of this unique area, and who work in partnership with the Ministry of Environment. These rangers were once poachers — primarily of birds’ eggs — whose quest for survival once imperilled the populations of water birds, but whose work is now vital to their preservation.
The boat from the village cruises to a lone observation platform in the middle of the lake. Rickety, narrow stairs need to be climbed. At the top, the viewing platform has a telescope providing a chance to peek into the local birds’ lives.
Among the organisations taking tours to Prek Toal are Osmose, Sam Veasna Centre (SVC) and Indochine Explorations. They may be pricier than other options, but they all have guides who are expert in the birdlife, have long experience on the lake, and are dedicated to the conservation of the area.
Osmose (for whom this Travelfish researcher once worked) started out life as a pure conservation organisation and was one of the first to start working in Prek Toal — indeed its founder Frederic Goes was one of the first to formally record the water bird populations at Prek Toal. Their focus has slowly shifted more towards community development over the years, however they aim to link that with broader conservation goals by removing or replacing the incentives to poach. They run numerous programmes in the village, including healthcare, environmental education, homestays, a community restaurant and Saray, an economic initiative that provides a livelihood for 30 women, chiefly heads of household, in the village.
SVC is a partner organisation of Wildlife Conservation Society, and their guides are serious birders. This is the organisation that the hardcore twitchers go to.
Indochine Explorations has something of the best of both worlds, as its founder used to run Sam Veasna Centre, and his partner used to work for Osmose, and also comes from Prek Toal. Unlike Osmose and SVC, Indochine Exoplorations is not an NGO. They are equally dedicated to the conservation values that underpin those organisations however. With them, the more athletic among you can also take the option of kayaking out to Prek Toal.
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.
Prices are not posted online, but you can expect the above tours to start at $200 for one person for one day. This number starts to drop substantially the more people are in the group, so check to see if you can join another tour. The price is a reflection of the fact that getting out to Prek Toal is difficult logistically, and also includes the conservation fee payable to the Ministry of Environment with each trip. That fee goes towards paying the rangers who patrol the core reserve, so that it will still be there in the future. When you come back again.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 18th February, 2016.