Prek Toal is a conservation success story in South East Asia. A floating village on the North West edge of the great Tonle Sap lake, it is the gateway to the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve, a model of environmental and community tourism success.
Late October is not prime bird-watching time, with the lake is at its very highest. So while keen birders may prefer January when there is more chance to see the rarest species, there are still plenty of birds on show for those with a less specific interest in nature and ecology, and the water is at its cleanest, so perfect for swimming.
The Cambodian countryside is beautiful at the moment – lush with growth at the end of the wet season (green season is the common euphemism!), a bumpy red earth road leads through paddy fields tall with rice, sugar palms with buffaloes wallowing in the irrigation channels. This is the rural idyll that people think about. We however, are travellin straight through to our dock, a simple affair at the end of the channel to the lake.
It is a short distance to Mechrey, a small and unvisited village, a world away from the overcrowded Chong Kneas. We are then onto the lake itself, floating water hyacinth, yellow saray flowers in bloom, occasional trees emerging from the water – the lake is a mix of flooded scrubland, grassland and forest at the moment. Eventually we come to the village of Prek Toal itself – a community of approximately 10,000 whose life revolves around fishing. Increasing numbers also supplement their income through tourism, Osmose support businesses using the invasive water hyacinth for weaving into products, while the Sam Veasna Center works with the Wildlife Conservation Society to take birders and more general tourists into the bird reserve – on locally-owned boats.
Into the reserve itself, it is a photographer’s dream. Strong blues and greens, beautiful scenery (bring a polariser!), but the problem is the subjects. They’re small, good at hiding, and move fast. A 200mm lens on an APS-C camera is not long enough to get some of these, although I wouldn’t want to carry anything heavier, especially as a non-specialist. It is just lovely, moving slowly through the flooded forest and scrubland, hearing the bird calls, eyes peeled with an occasional whisper as a bird is spotted. Lots of oriental darters, occasional pelicans wheeling majestically overhead, a grey-headed fish eagle – and lots of smaller birds such as kingfishers. The greater coucal proves particularly adept at being blurred in every single shot I tried to take.
We spend about 2 hours through the core bird reserve, pausing at one of the WCS-sponsored observation platforms, having a swim, and taking in the scope of this massive area, home to well over 100 species of birds. While twitchers may come for the greater adjutant stork, we are just happy to enjoy the environment, have a swim, and enjoy seeing these beautiful creatures, rare and not-so-rare, in their natural environment.
Looping back towards the village, 6 of us take to the water ourselves, kayaking back to the village down the Stung Sangker river. A simple lunch at the community restaurant, and after a long morning on the water, a well-deserved beer goes down well with the locally caught fish. this is a simple day, of simple pleasures – countryside, wildlife, time on and in the water, with fresh food and a cold drink. As far away from the pressures of modern western life as it is possible to get, it feels.
More exploration by kayak ensues, this time around the village itself. There is consternation and them smiles and laughter at seeing barangs paddling around, in the middle of the afternoon. When life revolves around the pulse of the lake and the state of the fishery, any novelty attracts attention.
And finally, as the sun begins to fall again, we head back, the afternoon light bringing out those stunning primary colours again. Returning through Mechrey to the dock and the road home.