Our 10 days in Cambodia can be split into three parts: Siem Reap, “The Tour”, and Penom Penh. Overall, our visit to Cambodia was bitter sweet and to be perfectly honest, for the most part we weren’t impressed with the country. After spending almost a month in rural, sparsely populated National Parks throughout Thailand, we soon found ourselves in the middle of bustling Siem Reap, an especially touristy town. Being the hot-spot tourist location for Angkor Wat, the streets of Siem Reap were packed with thousands of people everywhere and the prices were so inflated that we could have bought cheaper meals in the US! (Ex: A small plate of fried rice was $5 USD! Very frustrating compared to the price of $1 USD while in Thailand). Angkor Wat, and the surrounding temples were extremely impressive. Amazing bas reliefs could be found on nearly every surface of every temple. The feeling of being in a place thousands of years old became most apparent when we would see enormous trees growing out from the walls of the temples. The place itself was impressive at a glance, but unless you are a history/architecture buff, if you’ve seen 2-3 temples, you’ve seen them all. We spent our first full day in the country exploring the temples but by the afternoon we were templed-out and spent some time walking the streets – which became quite painful to do after 10am because the temperatures would rise to 100 degrees and very little shade was available. Although the food was overpriced, the beer and the foot massages certainly weren’t. Ross was able to drink the Cambodian beer for 50 cents a glass and we were able to get foot massages for $2/hour.
If it isn’t already obvious, I wouldn’t really recommend Siem Reap as a “must stop” place for any bucket list unless you’ve exhausted your other options, but the temples were surely a nice sight. See for yourself:
After three days in crowded Siem Reap, we were more than ready to get back off the beaten path and do what we planned to accomplish while in Cambodia – find some really rare birds. Some of the most critically endangered birds in the world have their last strongholds in the most remote areas of Cambodia. Several species that we wanted to see have populations of 1500 individuals or less, some with as few as 350 individuals remaining. Unfortunately, rural Cambodia is not a place you can just visit on your own and the only way to get access to most of the places we wanted to visit was via a birding tour. However, we did spend one of our “Siem Reap” days visiting Prek Toal, a floating village with a wildlife refuge just beyond known to have rare birds such as Lesser Adjudant, Greater Adjudant, Spot-billed Pelican, Painted Stork and Milky Stork. We were able to see all of those birds save for the Milky Stork.
After our three days in Siem Reap, we left for a 6-day birding tour through The Sam Vaesna Center (SVC). The SVC uses a portion of the cost of the tour to prevent further habitat loss and thusly promote the rebuilding of the endangered species. So even though we usually like to DIY our trips, we were okay with using the SVC for their services knowing our money was going directly to conservation. To save on costs, an English birder named Rob joined us on the trip. Over the course of our 6 days touring Cambodia with SVC, the three of us were escorted to very remote areas, fed local food, always had a place to sleep (albeit in a tent at times,) and had a guide who carried the scope while pointing out bird species. In only 6 days we were able to add some quality birds to our “list.”
Our tour went like this:
Day 1 – We were picked up from our Hostel in Siem Reap and then drove to the Bengal Florican Conservation Area. Highlights from this area included Bengal Florican, Manchurian Reed Warbler, Sarus Crane, Small Button Quail and Blue-breasted Quail. After a morning there we were taken to Tmat Boey, the “go-to” location for the very endangered Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis.
Day 2 – A day at Tmat Boey did not disappoint as we had Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis, our main targets, although not very close. This area was mostly made up of Dry Dipterocarp forest so woodpeckers were commonly present throughout.
Day 3 – We stayed another morning at Tmat Boey and stumbled upon Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, and Savannah Nightjar before heading to Okoki, one of the most remote areas I’ve ever been. We arrived at our camp after 26 painful kilometers on the worst road I’ve ever seen. We travelled all of this way to get to a location to search for White-winged Duck, a rare duck with a sporadic range that is usually very hard to get looks at. A hide at this particular location has been a known spot for the ducks so after arriving we spent the evening in a hide to wait. Unfortunately no duck. After dark that night we finally had looks at Oriental Scops Owl.
Day 4 – Our full day in Okoki proved to be the best day of the trip by far. We never got to see the White-winged Duck that we were trying for, but while we were sitting in the hide, two GIANT IBIS came and spent FIVE HOURS eating, bathing, preening, and hanging out in the pond near the hide we were sitting in. The birds came as close to us as 10 yards away!! This probably doesn’t sound too exciting unless you are familiar with Giant Ibis and the fact that they are one of the most endangered birds in the world with populations estimated to be <350 individuals. Almost no one gets as good of looks at these birds as we did. Our guide was so excited about finally getting such awesome looks at usually a very skiddish bird. Naturally Ross filled an entire memory card with photos of the birds and many birders would be VERY envious of this experience with such rare birds.
Day 5 – The next morning we left Okoki but not before birding the forest nearby. That morning I had great looks at one of my favorite birds of the trip, Great Slaty Woodpecker. (Fun fact, I didn’t feel like sitting in the bird hide waiting for a duck that wasn’t going to come like Ross did, so I left him and went for a walk. I taped in the Great Slaty Woodpecker all by myself and had a group of 5 in a tree right next to me! I legit might be a birder now…) Anyway, after a productive morning, and several other great views of Great Slaty on our way out of Okoki, we headed to Veal Krous the location of a “Vulture Restaurant.” Indian and Savannah Nightjars were heard calling at dusk that evening.
Day 6 – We spent the morning at the Vulture restaurant, which is exactly what it sounds like – a place for vultures to come to eat. We had bought a cow to be slaughtered so that the birds would come and feast on it. We had great looks at Red-headed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture and White-rumped Vulture, all of which are endangered thanks to a drug given to cows in India that is lethal to the vultures who may then consume the cow. We stayed a few hours observing the vultures before we packed up one last time to leave our tour.
After the tour was completed, we were dropped off in the town of Kratie so that we could go tick the Mekong Wagtail. We took a boat that usually goes out onto the Mekong River to see the Irrawaddy River Dolphin, but communicated with the driver to stop along the way for the bird. He was more than willing to do that, but as we were getting off the boat he forced us to pay an extra $16 on top of the $7 we already paid to see the dolphin. Just another example of why we were ready to get out of Cambodia!
We then left Kratie and hopped on a very tightly packed bus to Penom Penh, Cambodia’s capitol city with a very dark history. (Google Cambodian Genocide or Khmer Rouge if you have any spare time.) Anyway, we really went to Penom Penh to find the Camodian Tailorbird, a bird species discovered in 2009 and confirmed as a new species in 2013. This particular bird is found only in Penom Penh but was surprisingly easy for us to find!
After one last day in Penom Penh, mostly just walking around the crowded city and touring the palace, we hopped on a plane and our 10 days in Cambodia came to a close.
Overall, it was a very successful trip and we added 50 year birds to our “Big Year List.” Normally we wouldn’t do a guided tour as they are rather expensive, but getting the rare birds of Cambodia would be almost impossible otherwise.
Some quick thoughts on doing a guided bird tour: I can definitely see why people would go with this option – it is an easy way to see a country’s birds. Not many people are willing to spend the time learning all of the birds and their calls or torture themselves planning a DIY foreign birding trip. A bird guide becomes a handy resource who knows the locations and the bird behavior in the area – not mention they speak the language. Additionally getting to the right spot is never a hassle. All of the prep hours normally spent researching the logistics are not needed. If you aren’t on a budget, this is a great option.
We did have to laugh though because this was our first tour and a “normal” birding tour usually coordinates accommodations using the nicest hotels in the area. Unfortunately we were in such remote locations that we slept in a small room with no fan while in Tmat Boey and the rest of our nights were spent sleeping in a tent. We can’t complain though, we got the birds and our guide was great!
Overall, it was a good experience, but Cambodia, and its sauna-like, unbearably hot weather is not a place we plan to visit again!