Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary at Tonle Sap Lake is a charmer
PHNOM PENH, Aug 29 — You can tell a lot about a country by its toilets. I had been in Cambodia for a week, and hadn’t encountered a single egregiously off-putting loo. Most were pristine, even those that are way out in villages where there was no running water. I was having a fabulous time.
The earnestness with which the restrooms were maintained seemed indicative of the hardworking ethos and can-do attitude of the Cambodian people. Eager to please and eager to put the Khmer Rouge nightmare behind them, everyone was doing their best to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but not in the aggressively materialistic manner you see in many developing nations.
Cambodians were warm and good-natured, and as the local guide explained to us about Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary and the people who relied on Tonle Sap Lake for their livelihood, I found myself rooting for this country, and promising myself I would return.
We had gotten up at dawn and been driven from Siem Reap to the lake’s edge. We were now taking a breakfast of croissant and tropical fruits as our boat chugged toward the Bird Sanctuary. We were on a tour with Osmose, a non-profit organisation that conserves the unique habitat and animals of Tonle Sap by working with local floating village communities to prevent poaching, generate alternate sources of income, and provide eco-tours.
Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South-east Asia, and a vital breeding ground for many water birds, some of which are critically endangered. The lake shrinks and expands seasonally depending on rainfall, and trees that grow there spend much of the time almost fully submerged and leafless, only coming back to life when the waters recede for a few dry months every year.
As we moved through the flooded forest, our boat rotors would occasionally get clogged with water hyacinth. This invasive species is not native to the lake, and represents a threat to the ecosystem. Later in the day, we saw villagers using dried water hyacinth stems to weave baskets, hammocks and other useful products for sale. This was one of Osmose’s projects to tackle both an environmental conservation issue and improve the villagers’ livelihoods.
Other fascinating occupations we got to witness were the cultivation of floating vegetable gardens, fish, duck and crocodile farms, and preparation of fermented fish sauce. As there was no electricity, the resourceful villagers hooked up televisions to car batteries. They kept pet dogs and even reared pigs in enclosure-rafts!
When we neared Preak Toal, we spotted the birds’ nesting trees from miles away, as they were bleached white by droppings.
As we got nearer, we saw huge flocks of Asian Openbilled Storks. We did not get to see these massive birds use the strange gap in their bills to deshell their favourite food of snails, but we did see them earnestly gathering reeds and twigs to build their nests. These faithful birds pair for life, and return to the same nests every year, renovating and adding to them until they sometimes cause whole trees to collapse from the weight.
We also saw crowds of Oriental Darters. These had colonised other trees and had already had chicks. The fledglings were transitioning from their white, juvenile plumage to the adult brown, and stood on branches pumping their wings furiously, trying to build muscles they would need to eventually take to the sky.
The sight of all this was fantastic, educational and exciting. But the highlight of the morning was docking at a ranger observation post. This consisted of nothing more than a series of rickety ladders that led to a bamboo platform strapped to the top of a tree, equipped with one telescope. We each took turns climbing to this precarious perch.
Looking out from up there, the still, still waters of the big blue lake, peppered with green trees; the pelicans skimming the surface of the waters; the herons circling high overhead; and the deep, calm quiet all around, created one of the most perfect panoramas I have ever seen. — Today