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Prek Toal, Cambodia


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Cambodia, Prek Toal

A trip report freshly made, in dire corona times, with pictures from my shelve.

In december 2006, I went to visit Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, on the shores of the legendary Tonle Sap lake, by the Mekong river in Cambodia. IMG_8585.jpg.0898455ec2765f8a1b5e3387c6fa2599.jpg

Prek Toal was emerging as a new natural reserve. In previous decades, the plentiful ancient bird population of this enormous rookery had been dramatically depleted by the relentless ‘harvesting’ of eggs and chicks. Prek Toal is in fact a flooded forest, next to a floating village with the same name.

Around the time of my visit, the newly declared but agonizing biosphere reserve was taking a turn for the better, led by a franco-belgian couple and their NGO Osmose http://osmosetonlesap.net/wp/index.php/en/home/ , with rigorous protection, education, international development aid, and the promise of eco-tourism. The pelicans were breeding again, the darters, the cormorants, the storks and even the Greater Adjutant were coming back.


Spot-billed pelicans on Tonle Sap lake.



The starting point for our visit to Prek Toal was Siem Reap. This city has a good tourist infrastructure, a well-connected airport (we flew in from Bangkok), and lots of hotels (we enjoyed the quite unique atmosphere of the stylish Raffles Grand Hotel). Siem Reap handles an enormous flow of international visitors to the world famous temples of Angkor Vat.


The temples of Angkor Vat are magnificent, it is a must see place in the world. I will not dwell on Angkor Vat in this report, but I limit myself to a general advise to avoid the big crowds. You should go there very early in the morning and explore the wider area. The smaller temples on the site are even more beautiful than the big one.




There is some wildlife around the temples, like macaques, and red-breasted parakeets.



My trip to Prek Toal was perfectly organized by the Sam Veasna Center https://samveasna.com/

Sam Veasna Center is more than a travel agency. It was very new at the time, founded in 2006, in memory of a local conservation hero, Sam Veasna, as an NGO with the mission to halt the rapid degradation of natural habitats and the extinction of species in rural Cambodia.


Leaving Siem Reap at dawn, we were taken by a fishing boat for the ride over the lake. It takes about 2 hours from the bustling chaotic harbor of Chong Khneas, to Prek Toal.


Tonle Sap Lake is a natural wonder in its own right, an enormous shallow lake. Its water level rises  every year dramatically with the flood regime of the mighty Mekong, inundating its shores and its flooded forests. The floating villages on the lake rise and fall with the tides. The eco-system of this lake provides for gigantic quantities of fish, a staple food for the people of the whole country, and for the birds.



A lot of education and advocacy was required to convince local fishermen that these birds, even in huge numbers,  are no real competitors for the fish. On the contrary, the healthy flooded forests and rookeries, if well protected, work as fish nurseries and deliver a steady sustainable cycle of fish life for the lake (if not over-exploited, there is a general pressure of pollution by the increasing population, and a looming risk of changes in the annual floods by the construction of dams upstream on the Mekong and its tributaries).



The flooded forest was magical. The water stood several meters high at places. We were leisurely floating around in this paradise, with thousands of birds around us, on the trees, in the sky, diving in the water, popping up with fish.

The racket, the noise, and the pungent smell of the rookeries was sometimes quite overwhelming, but I enjoyed it at part of an eerie spectacle. Our guide was strictly observing a respectful distance to the nesting trees. No mosquitos, by the way.


The Greater adjutant is breeding here. These big Asian marabou storks are almost extinct elsewhere, with only three remaining breeding populations; two in India, with the largest colony in Assam, and another breeding population here in Cambodia. Marabou storks are ugly, but I can appreciate this charismatic Asian version: it’s very big, it’s colorful, it’s rare. 



The lesser adjutant is also present in Prek Toal .


The guides from Sam Veasna center can explain in detail how the conversion of the local people from egg-collectors to eco-guides was done.


A visit to the floating village of Prek Toal is therefore particularly interesting.



The spot-billed pelicans are the most conspicuous birds in the rookeries. They are nesting in trees, most other pelican species in the world are nesting on the ground (except for the brown pelicans).



It’s quite spectacular to see these big birds landing on the treetops, huddling together on makeshift nests.




These lesser known pelicans are a bit smaller than the Dalmatian or the white pelicans, they have a whitish plumage with some pink-brownish parts under the wings, a brownish tail, and gray crest and hindneck. The upper mandible of the bill has spots that give the birds their name. The bill pouch is pink to purplish and also features large, pale spots. The eye is quite colorful.





The Oriental darter, or Anhinga, is present in big numbers. These birds are particularly elegant, well-designed for streamlined underwater speed.




The chicks of the darters have a whitish color, they are brutally begging for food. While our boat was floating cautiously under the trees of the rookery, the parents were diving for fish all around us.


The black-headed ibis.


The Brahminy Kite



Cormorants are breeding here by the thousands .


The Indian cormorant.



The average one day trip back and forth from Siem Reap leaves not enough time to explore the vast reserve, as the boat ride over the Tonle Sap lake takes too long.

Birdlife and photography is best in the early hours of the day, and in the late afternoon, anyou shouldn’t miss the sunset and sunrise over the reserve.






The black-capped kingfisher.


The painted stork in breeding plumage is a beautiful creature. The numbers are going up again.



The Asian openbill stork is very numerous in the rice fields of Southeast Asia, and it is also breeding in the rookeries of Prek Toal.


The great egrets are present as well.


The purple swamphen.

From Siem Reap we did a daytrip to the North, also with Sam Veasna Center, to see the Sarus cranes in Ang Trapaeng Thmor. It is about 100 km from Siem Reap, the drive takes 2-3 hours.


This protected wetland has an interesting history, its origin is an irrigation dam, built with forced labor by the Khmer Rouge. Now it is a magnificent floodplain, devoted to eco-tourism. It is teeming with wildlife, the main attraction are the wintering sarus cranes.



This subspecies is the very rare Eastern Sarus Crane. In the last 50 years it has disappeared from Thailand, Malaysia and much of Indochina. The remaining population in Cambodia is precarious. IMG_7055.jpg.03b1898647f8aac187b3930d6707cfa7.jpg_MG_2645.jpg.109643fa29aa71c8ae8f00a71936e769.jpg


Comb ducks at Ang Trapaeng Thmor



Lesser whistling ducks




Apart from the Eastern Sarus cranes, we found the trip to ATT also very worthwhile for the beautiful countryside and the scenes of genuine rural life, for example the harvesting of edible water beetles.

The village of Ang Trapaeng Thmor is participating in the eco-tourism development, and offers homestay, silk weaving, etc..

Our trip was a decade ago, we hope to go back there some day, after the pandemic…

Thanks for watching,


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Wonderful report and great pictures, thank you for sharing!

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Loved the stories and the pictures, thanks for sharing. We are contemplating a trip to that area in early 2022, so this is a great inspiration/planning resource.

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I hope it is as prolific today as in 2006.  Thanks for sharing this beautiful spot.

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Great trip report, great photos, @ajma! As that was 2006, are they already digital? If yes what gear?

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11 hours ago, xelas said:

Great trip report, great photos, @ajma! As that was 2006, are they already digital? If yes what gear?

Hi, xelas

These photos were made with a Canon 500 mm f4 on the Canon DSLR Eos 400D, in RAW. 


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1 hour ago, ajma said:

These photos were made with a Canon 500 mm f4 on the Canon DSLR Eos 400D, in RAW. 


Your photos shows that megapixels does not count much but good glass do! And post processing software has improved a lot.

You were an early adopter of DSLR technology; have you compared photos processed back in 2006 with photos processed in 2020? 

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@ajma, fascinating, thanks for doing this report, a worthy add-on to Siem Reap, or vice versa.

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