Intrepid visitors to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary in Battambang province will share the opportunity to enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience that blends the unique lifestyle of Cambodia’s floating villages with the rich biodiversity of the sanctuary. 

Located at the northwestern end of the Tonle Sap Lake, in Ek Phnom district’s Koh Chivaing commune, the remarkable floating village of Prek Toal bears witness to human adaptability.

In this waterborne community, homes, schools and shops, all resting on buoyant platforms, rise and fall with the lake’s rhythms, painting a picture of life in sync with the natural ebb and flow of the Tonle Sap. 

This distinctive lifestyle, so deeply connected to the waterways, offers visitors a chance to appreciate a different way of living.

Chean Sophal, who provides tour guide and birdwatching services to Prek Toal, explained that tourist vessels take over an hour to reach the isolated community from Siem Reap town, but it’s more than worth the time. 

“Tourists can take the time to admire the villagers’ homes, floating gardens, crocodile cages, hyacinth crafts and community schools, before heading to the birdwatching area,” he says. 

Sophal said a day tour from Siem Reap to the sanctuary includes an early morning hotel pick-up, a boat trip to the village, birdwatching through the reserve, and visits to local community and craft sites. 

Optional activities include exploring the floating village on paddle boats and witnessing local agricultural and aquacultural practices. The tour returns to Siem Reap in the afternoon.

As the guests glide gently across the placid waters of the lake, they transition smoothly from cultural immersion to an appreciation for nature, as they make their way into the bird sanctuary.

A biodiversity treasure

As they enter the sanctuary, the passengers – armed with binoculars and cameras – lean forward with anticipation, their eyes scanning the lush greenery that fringes the water’s edge. 

Each individual is immersed in the experience, seeking to capture the essence of this unique environment, be it through a lens or a moment of quiet observation.

The sanctuary, renowned for its biodiversity, is home to a plethora of bird species, some of which are rare and endangered. 

As they venture deeper, seasoned ornithologists and casual observers alike can witness spectacular displays by birds as varied as the spot-billed pelican, the milky stork, and various species of cormorants and darters, all thriving in their natural habitat.

One international guest, Greff Jeanne from France, says she loves visiting the floating villages and the bird sanctuary. She describes them both as must-see places for anyone interested in learning more about Cambodia.

The densely populated area led to it being named part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.Heng Chivoan

“This visit gave me a better understanding of how these people live, as well as allowing me to spend a day observing the incredible biodiversity of the lake,” she tells The Post.

“I’d advise anyone wishing to visit the country to include this in their list of things to do. I learned so much in one day about so many different subjects, and really felt like I was immersed in the lives of the Cambodians who live in this village,” she says. 

Gradual recovery

Neth Chumnit, Prek Toal area manager for the Battambang provincial Department of Environment, notes that tourists are now returning, although not as many as before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Right now, we greet between 100 and 200 foreign guests a month, and the number of domestic visitors is about the same,” he tells The Post. 

Sophal acknowledges that the current number of tourists is significantly smaller than before the global epidemic, adding that the number of visitors is around one-third of the 2019 figures.

Steering his modest yet sturdy boat through the winding waterways of Prek Toal, Chea Honda, a local who has transported tourists since 2011, offers curious tourists more than just a journey; he provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of the lake’s feathered inhabitants.

His small but reliable boat features a quiet outboard motor, and he is careful not to disturb the natural habitat. 

Despite the decline in visitors due to the recent global pandemic, he has noted an increase in tours this year, providing a vital source of income for the local community.

“It is true that there are not as many visitors as before Covid-19. But now I have the opportunity to guide more tour groups, as the number of boat operators has declined. Before the global shutdown, I could sometimes only work one shift a week, as there were 30 to 40 boats working,” he tells The Post.

Honda, in his 50s, earns $30 for transporting visitors from the floating village to the bird sanctuary, which takes more than 30 minutes. He can wait between three and five hours for the guests to return.

Chumnit explained that many boat operators have changed their careers. Now, there are fewer than 10.

Ornithological wonders

The birding experience is extremely educational, offering insights into conservation efforts and local cultural practices, as well as various bird species with over 150 recorded in the reserve.

Sophal explains that the area has many habitats, divided by different species. He notes that foreign tourists are often more knowledgeable and plan their visits around their favourite species.

A trio of rare lesser adjutants perch high atop a tree at the Prek Toal site on January 21.Heng Chivoan

The ideal period for visiting the Prek Toal bird colonies spans from November to May, with varying species arriving at different times.

Access to the bird colonies can also be influenced by water levels, with lower levels from late February to June impacting the ability to reach certain observation points. 

“In the rainy season, we can see them in the trees and can visit their nets, while in the dry season tour boats cannot reach the nests, and they are difficult to see with the naked eye,” explains Chumnit.

“From February to March, the water levels will be lower, so the larger birds will come down to the only water sources along the canal to feed. It’s a great opportunity to watch them” he adds.

The sanctuary experiences a decrease in bird population from July to September, with several species returning in October for breeding season.

Community support

Sophal, also co-founder of the Cambodia Bird Guide Association (CBGA), emphasises the role of bird watching in enhancing community welfare. 

The CBGA, established in late 2016, not only raises funds for bird conservation but also contributes to local development, through jobs and infrastructure projects.

Sophal explains that birdwatching is a form of nature tourism that provides many benefits to the locals, as they can offer guests basic guide services, food and beverages, and various other products. 

“Our main mission is to try to support the livelihood of local communities. Every year, we take tourists to various bird areas across the country.

 “We provide jobs to communities by hiring them to work with us as guides or chefs, and accommodation organisers,” he says.

Conservation challenges

Just like other eco-tourism destinations, bird sanctuaries around the country are still at high risk of poaching. 

“We need to do more with education and outreach. The key people involved in all of this are the general population. If they are poaching, no organisation and no defender can preserve the biodiversity,” says Sophal.

A large wildfire in the Prek Toal site in 2016 claimed the lives of many birds, as well as large amounts of other precious biodiversity.

Chumnit says his conservation team is divided into two groups to patrol the Prek Toal area. There are 21,342ha of protected areas to monitor, for both fires and squatter camps.

He adds that conservation officials are also responsible for the multi-use area of the Tonle Sap Lake, which covers more than 110,000ha.

“We lack enough rangers because the protected area is so large,” he rues. 

“We have a lot of shortcomings, so what is important is that we focus on core areas, like Prek Toal,” he adds. 

The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, recognised as Southeast Asia’s most extensive waterbird colony, is situated at the Tonle Sap Great Lake’s edge. Officially nominated as a Ramsar site – or protected wetland habitat for waterfowl – it forms part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.