Article and photos by Elena del Valle
A young boy in a tiny boat floats through the village
During a recent trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia I had an opportunity to spend time in a conservation area and bird reserve near the city. Although the conservation area we visited was only 90 minutes by car and boat from the central urban area where my hotel was it was vastly different from the hustle and bustle of the city. Spending time in an area visited by only 150 bird and conservation enthusiasts a year was special. As the word spreads about the eight conservation areas that it is possible to visit in Cambodia and tourism to the region continues to grow the number of visitors to the reserve will likely grow as well. For now, it is still a pleasure of serene lake and birding panoramas.
Most of the village floated on the water
Nick Butler, the coordinator of the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, and Sophoan Sanh, a senior tour guide with five years of experience with the Center, escorted me on a day long Bird Reserve and Floating Village Day Trip on Tonle Sap Lake. To take advantage of the weather and avoid rain as much as possible we set out at 6 a.m. on a weekday morning. We drove from my hotel in central Siem Reap through the countryside to the shores of Tonle Sap Lake, the home of, and an important source of livelihood for, many Cambodians; where we boarded a 10 meter wood motorboat with a 110 horsepower engine, curtains (in case of rain) and an upper deck (we were quite thankful for the curtains and cover when it rained) to traverse the lake in a west southwest direction to our destination, the Prek Toal Bird Sancuary and the nearby village of Prek Toal.
Map of Cambodia
Along the way Nick, a native of the United Kingdom, and Sophoan, a Cambodian, shared information about the lake and its importance for the local communities, the birds in the area and the environment while we munched on the goodies from the breakfast boxes they had brought along. Although there was plenty of space in the shady comfort of the boat we climbed onto the upper deck to better view the lake and the birds. On our way through the conservation area to one of the main floating villages we stopped at an observation point, a tree where Center staff spent time to monitor and protect the bird nesting areas (sometimes the fishermen were drawn to them because of the excellent fishing they offered). From the canopy of the tree we could see for miles around the lake, including approaching rain clouds. It was a beautiful sight. Although there was a seemingly infinite variety of insects that rained on us when we brushed the trees as we motored around the reserve I saw not a single mosquito and for that I was thankful.
Boats of many descriptions were the core of local transport
At the Prek Toal floating village we picked up a representative of the Cambodian parks and made a restroom stop (although there was a toilet on the boat it was tiny and without toilet paper) before heading to a local house for lunch. The village was a lively place with residents going about their everyday lives in their floating homes and businesses or making their way from one location to another by boat. Lunch, prepared by a village family who had received special training, was delicious.
A non floating temple in the floating village
After lunch, a teenage member of the family showed us around the village in a small rowboat. I particularly enjoyed the water level view we had on the boat that allowed us to see the inhabitants, their homes and businesses close up. Some came to their door to look at us with curiosity; at times children waived shyly and adults smiled when we waved back. After that we crossed the lake to reach our car for the short drive back to Siem Reap, arriving at my hotel in the late afternoon. The day trip remains one of my favorite memories of Cambodia.