Image by Sai Adikarla Sai Adikarla
Prek Toal is one of three biospheres on the Tonlé Sap lake, and this stunning bird sanctuary makes it the most worthwhile and straightforward of the three to visit. It’s an ornithologist’s fantasy, with a significant number of rare breeds gathered in one small area, including the huge lesser and greater adjutant storks, the milky stork and the spot-billed pelican. Even the uninitiated will be impressed, as these birds have a huge wingspan and build enormous nests.
During the peak season (December to early February) visitors will find the concentration of birds like something out of a Hitchcock film. As water starts to dry up elsewhere, the birds congregate here. The birds remain beyond February but the sanctuary becomes virtually inaccessible due to low water levels. It is also possible to visit from September, but the bird numbers may be lower. Serious twitchers know that the best time to see birds is early morning or late afternoon and this means an early start or an overnight at Prek Toal’s environment office, where there is very basic accommodation (single/double bed US$15/20).
Several ecotourism companies in Siem Reap arrange trips out to Prek Toal including the Sam Veasna Center, Osmose and Prek Toal Tours & Travel, which is run by Prek Toal villagers. Tours include transport, entrance fees, guides, breakfast, lunch and water. Binoculars are available on request, plus the Sam Veasna Center has spotting scopes that they set up at observation towers within the park. All three outfits can arrange overnight trips for serious enthusiasts. Day trips include a hotel pick-up at around 6am and a return by nightfall.
Getting to the sanctuary under your own steam requires you to take a 20-minute moto (US$3 or so) or taxi (US$15 one way) ride to the floating village of Chong Kneas (depending on the time of day additional fees may have to be paid at the new port), and then a boat to the environment office (around US$55 return, one hour each way). From here, a small boat (US$30 including a park guide) will take you into the sanctuary, which is about one hour beyond. The park guides are equipped with booklets with the bird names in English, but they speak little English themselves, hence the advantage of visiting with a tour company that provides English-speaking guides.
Trips to the sanctuary also bring you up close and personal with the fascinating floating village of Prek Toal, a much more rewarding destination than over-touristed, scam-ridden Chong Kneas closer to Siem Reap. Part of your entrance to the sanctuary goes towards educating children and villagers about the importance of the birds and the unique flooded-forest environment.
Always bring sunscreen and head protection to Prek Toal, as it's a long day in boats and the sun can be relentless.