Visiting Cambodia for the first time, Diane and I spent some time researching what to do in the immediate area besides touring the overwhelmingly beautiful temples. As one of the most touristy areas in all Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has something for almost everyone and wildlife is no exception. Although a multitude of off the beaten path excursions involving rafting, hiking and wildlife treks permeate much of the remote Northeastern corner of the country, we chose the relative ease and comfort of the main drag this time around. Fortunately, there’s enjoyable, educational and beautiful scenery as well as some great wildlife viewing that’s easily doable as day trips not far from Angkor Wat. Always eager for birding opportunities, we decided to visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and combine it with a day trip through the famous flooded forests of Tonle Sap, a seasonally inundated freshwater lake that’s Southeast Asia’s largest.
Venturing out at around 8:30 AM our guide picked us up in the comfort of his air-conditioned Honda and we headed out-of-town. With countless options for touring the area, we prefer private personalized guides when possible but living as early retirees on a fixed income makes this a bit harder. In our working days we generally used most of our vacation time on combination trips that offered both amazing wildlife opportunities and a chance to explore the local expat community in some of the world’s most popular retirement zones. Lucky enough to visit places like The Galapagos Islands while staying at beautiful eco-lodges in places like The Ecuadorian Amazon or Borneo’s Danum Valley, we’ve entered a new stage of life where money doesn’t come easily so now we choose less expensive guides.
With an unusual policy of charging by the vanload (or carload for two people), our guide’s pricing allowed us to visit most areas of interest to us without exorbitant fees. As referenced in my last post, I can’t recommend our guide due to an unexpected misfortune whereby he tried to change the dates we wanted to tour and dumped us on someone else when we refused, but we’d still recommend finding someone with local knowledge that enjoys sharing. Personal guides abound in Cambodia and with a burgeoning tourist industry there’s no shortage of experience experts waiting to share the history of this storied kingdom. Profoundly proud of their heritage, Cambodians are an extremely resilient people and their horribly sad recent history includes years of destruction thanks to American foreign policy that saw a five-year bombing campaign designed to stifle North Vietnamese supply chains and a genocide that most Westerners know very little about. Eager to share, the best guides are often ones that ventured out on their own after working for government sponsored tourist agencies. Greatly enhanced by a knowledgeable English-speaking guide, take some time and seek out a good one.
Supplemented by the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap is a unique biological area that supports vast amounts of fish, wildlife and many villagers that live among the ever-changing floodplain. Depending on when you visit, the area either looks like a strangely empty body of water with houses raised on large stilts (June) or a deepwater lake that reaches its capacity in November. Freshwater mangroves known as “flooded forests” surround the lake and provide habitat for large numbers of species. Representing the heart of Cambodia’s national freshwater fishing industry that supplies most of the nation’s protein, widespread threats from pollution to over fishing are always present and the government does its best to ensure preservation of this critical region. Methods of fishing are in this area are unique and well documented on various websites.
Ironically, most tourists visiting the region bypass the bird sanctuary and opt for the two most popular floating villages (Kompong Phluk and Chong Khneas). Billed as the best place for those who don’t have a lot of time, we’d recommend avoiding the crowds and tourist trinkets offered at the villages themselves in favor of a slow boat ride through the scenic and peaceful mangroves where you’ll encounter a smaller village known as Mechrey. Heading in the opposite direction of the more popular villages, most guides will choose this route in conjunction with a visit to the bird sanctuary for the easier access. Although the peak season for birding is January through March due to seasonal migrations, there’s still a good number of resident species and we saw Oriental Darters, Grand Coucals, Roufous Woodpeckers and thousands of Cormorants (locally known as Indian Shags). Knowing very little about birds, our guide told us it’s possible to arrange an accompanying naturalist or ranger but as seasoned bird watchers, we opted to skip the extra cost especially since peak season was three months away.
Driving to the dock took about forty-five minutes and featured great views of the beautiful surrounding countryside. Visiting at the tail end of rainy season means the entire nation is greener than Kermit the Frog and we’re told that by the time most tourists arrive in early December for cool season, the fields will be yellow and dry already. Passing lush rice fields being plowed by cart and water buffalo, we stopped several times to admire the countryside before arriving a small dockside area where we boarded a boat similar to Thailand’s long tail boats. Perfectly breezy and beautiful blue skies made a perfect backdrop and we always enjoy spending an hour or two leisurely floating through the developing world’s scenic waterways. Although Cambodia is only five numbers higher than Myanmar on the developmental quality of life scale, it’s noticeably cleaner and appears closer to Thailand (although parts of Phnom Penh resemble Yangon’s less developed urban areas).
They charge fees for entering almost every major attraction in the Siem Reap area and it’s important to understand how much is appropriate versus what’s a ripoff. Many backpacker types venture out on their own without guides and hire boats at the dock areas. If there’s a downside to this area, it’s the entrance and boat fees. Preservation requirements aside, fees are rather high relative to most other prices in Cambodia. Looking back, I think our guide ripped us off a bit by charging $20 each for the boat from the dock to the village. By itself that isn’t bad but considering we didn’t stop anywhere in the village and he didn’t offer much in the way of local knowledge, it seemed high. Entering the boat, we floated down the river for about an hour taking in beautiful mangrove fields and passing the occasional fishermen.
After awhile we entered the floating village with its stilted houses. Using the river as the main boulevard, they literally pick the house up and move them at different times of the year, depending on water levels. Families move from place to place and conduct most community activities in a central building that stays in one place. Unsure why we didn’t get a chance to dock and say hello, there’s not much for sale in this village but the kids are typically friendly and a brief encounter would have been nice. Ask your guide about this if you go. Here’s a short video of the ride down the river.
Without offering much information, our guide seemed to enjoy the day out more than communicating with us and that’s not really my cup of tea since it’s possible to simply hire a boat driver who speaks little or no English and visit the area yourself. Soon after the village, we arrived at another dock which serves as the Park Headquarters for this part of the Biosphere including the bird sanctuary and some signage explains the area’s unique features in great detail. Charging another $20 each as an entrance fee to the bird sanctuary, we also paid another $30 for a second boat ride from the ranger station into Prek Toal itself.
Totaling $90 in fees plus his personal fee of $75, this day was probably too expensive when your guide doesn’t explain much. In retrospect, I’d probably should’ve researched better and either done a full day trip in the bird sanctuary with a naturalist or a cheaper day trip to the more popular floating villages. Thankfully, the boat trips were beautifully idyllic and we hardly saw any other people on the ride out so we did enjoy the day despite the fees. Transferring to another boat with a different driver, they gave us a cheat sheet on identifying some local birds and the driver maneuvered slowly through the river. Meandering slowly, we saw lots of small birds, some pelicans and lots of cormorants.
Arriving at a tree house that acts as a ranger station, we carefully climbed to the top where the ranger had a telescope pointed at some distant trees with many birds. Living in that small cramped tree for fourteen days at a time, the rangers purpose is simply to deter poaching. Through our guide’s translation we found out they think their jobs are boring but necessary and they jumped at a chance to hop in the boat and take us for a closer look at the trees we just viewed by telescope.
Since November isn’t prime time for birding, the best we could do for large groups of birds was an area colonized by thousands of nesting cormorants and the boat approached quietly. Unlike The Galapagos Islands, you can’t go up to the birds because it’s too disturbing but then again it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars to visit and Charles Darwin probably never went to Cambodia. Young birds are distinctively different in color and even our decent camera couldn’t capture them as well as I would’ve liked to but the experience was beautiful and well worth your time, even in off-season.
As a footnote to my post from the other day about our two-day journey from Penang to Cambodia, I should clarify something. Several people pointed out there is a way to arrive in Siem Reap on the same day and they are correct. However, it involves a flight on Malaysia Airlines, the nation’s beleaguered national carrier. Diane and I never fly with them. Ever. Owning the airline industry’s all time worst long-term responses to disasters, they’ve been plagued with problems since the disappearance of MH370 and subsequent bombing of MH17. After being forced to reorganize, the first new CEO didn’t last very long and their Facebook page highlighted mounds of problems by annoyed customers every time they try to plug a seat sale. And anyone that lives here knows how blunt Malaysians are when it comes to their opinions on social media. Occurring only three months after my layoff, it tested our commitment to an overseas retirement in Malaysia not once but twice and most of our friends thought we had a death wish.
As an agnostic, I respect all religions but I’m kind of into scientific facts and the bottom line is airplanes don’t disappear off the face of the earth. Period. GPS signals know your exact location down to a meter or two which makes it obvious that plane, the airline and even the government is the subject of one of the biggest conspiracy theories of all time. While I hate speculating on conjecture, let’s just say that I’ve heard many locals telling some stories about the U.S. government, China and some very special cargo that was on that plane. And with an erratic demagogue with probable ties to Russian oligarchs just elected to The White House, the bombing story sure becomes a bit more intriguing than the official line that Malaysia Airlines was somehow the only airline stupid enough to fly over hostile airspace. So even if we found ourselves stranded on a small island in The Philippines with a Super Typhoon on the way and Malaysia Airlines offered the last chance of evacuation, I’d take my chances and ride it out. But I do appreciate the insights from my awesome readers.
Over the next few weeks we’re taking it easy and mentally preparing for the culture and temperature shock as we make our first return back to North America since becoming overseas expats. Planning on spending the holidays with family and friends, it’s sure to be interesting. Meanwhile, I’ll be sharing each day of our Cambodian trip over the next few weeks. Perhaps the biggest disappointment this year will be spending out first U.S. Thanksgiving ever without any turkey. Although it’s possible to find a dinner at few select places in Penang, the price tags in the neighborhood of $75 USD per person for a frozen turkey that costs about $16 at Safeway is a horrible example of price gouging desperate Americans and if you’re a manager running one of these dinners you should be ashamed.
Comments and questions always welcome. Cheers !!