Nature-watching tourists flock to Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake

Destination: Southeast Asia

April 10, 2005|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,Special to the Sun

There is neither moon nor stars -- the world sleeps. Only our car's headlights pierce the pre-dawn gloom as we jounce over steadily roughening roads leading to the shore of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake. And though it is not yet breakfast time, we are hungry.

Why are we doing this?

Because, here as elsewhere, the early bird gets the worm -- and the early birder sees the birds.

Not that we can see anything at all at this moment. Wait -- there's a flame. It's probably a woman, although the silhouette is shapeless. She is stirring to fix her family's breakfast.

In another minute, we have reached a strange harbor, where scores of boats jostle together. It is like one of those overstuffed parking lots where 10 cars must be moved to get one out of its space. We cross the mud, hop onto a boat deck, skip to another boat and then another, and finally to "our" boat somewhere back in the jumble. More boats move this way and that, until ours is freed.

Before long, it will be sunrise. We move down a channel toward the open lake, past houseboats, store boats, floating gardens and a church boat. This is one of Cambodia's floating villages that moor on the lake shore, moving with the ebb and flow of the riparian season.

Children peer from their doors at the river traffic, and children in school uniforms row past us on their way to the school boat.

We will cross the lake to another, more famous, floating village, peopled by immigrant Vietnamese, where we will get our permit to visit the Prek Toal reserve, described in our guidebook as an "ornithologist's fantasy."

"Ornithologist" is too grand a term for us -- my wife and I are not even serious birders. But we do like to get into the great outdoors and look at things.

Visits to the reserve are regulated by Osmose, a nonprofit organization that promotes wildlife conservation and "responsible tourism."

The Osmose people are conflicted by this mission. If it were up to them, "responsible tourism" would mean "no tourism" -- everybody would just stay home and let nature thrive on its own. But they know that won't happen, and, moreover, they need tourist euros, dollars and yen to fund their conservation work. So, somewhat grudgingly, for a select few, they will expose the birds.

In fact, we had not been able to get on the morning's Osmose tour, which had been declared closed. By begging and wheedling at the Osmose headquarters in Siem Reap the day before, we had found a young Cambodian man who agreed to take us on his own. Lucky for us, in addition to an engaging smile, our guide had a keen eye for birds.

Tonle Sap, accessible from Siem Reap, where the famous Angkor Wat temples are, is an extraordinary lake. Even at its smallest in late winter, the lake is the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Curiously, the lake is both drained and fed by the Tonle Sap River. That is, half the year the lake spills into a river of the same name, pouring its overflow downstream into the Mekong River where the two channels join in the capital, Phnom Penh.

But during the rainy season, from mid-May to October, the waters of the mighty Mekong swell and reverse the course of the tributary. The Tonle Sap River backs up and fills the lake, flooding the surrounding forests. The lake's area more than doubles; its maximum depth increases from about 7 feet to 35 feet.

This action creates a unique ecology. The Tonle Sap Lake is one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish, and provides employment to 40 percent of the Cambodian population.

And, of course, birds love fish. They come from India, Mongolia and the Arctic. They winter here, or summer here, or settle in for life. Some species are common, some are endangered. As the water level drops through the winter, the fish become more exposed, and, at the shrinking water's edge, the birds congregate.

It's an ornithologist's fantasy.

We racked up about 26 species in a couple of hours. Spot-billed pelicans, lesser adjutants, Asian openbills, Oriental darters -- we saw them in multitudes. These are supposed to be endangered species, but you'd never know it from their profusion at Tonle Sap Lake. (Of course, the point is that some of them can't normally be found anywhere else.)

A purple heron posed for us on a fishing weir. We saw pond herons, kingfishers, bee-eaters, Brahminy kites, purple swamp-hens, white-vented mynas, bitterns, fish eagles and a colony of painted storks.

As our boat lazed up the bayous of Prek Toal, birds fluttered up before us and we could see how they flew and where they roosted. It cost the two of us about $100, plus lunch. That included $35 for the young man who put the trip together, about $10 of which he needed to share with police along the way. The driver from hotel to lake and back got $20, and Osmose charged us $15 each for a permit, boat and guide to the preserve. Tips rounded up the total.

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