Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Our only excursion from Siem Reap was to Tonle Sap Lake. This is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, it also has the interesting aspect of annual flow reversal (its water flowing to or from the Mekong River). It is a vital ecosystem for much of Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia and is designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. But as is the case of such ecosystems, it is also under assault from all directions. On this morning, however, with the lake near its maximum volume under the bright sun and a gentle breeze, all seems to be temporarily forgotten.

(Click on each image to see the high-resolution version)

Tonle Sap Lake

Many birds were busily flying over the water, I picked up a few new birds in rapid succession (the four birds shown below were all new to me).

Brown-headed Gull

Whiskered Tern

Little Cormorant

Oriental Darter

After crossing a section of the lake in a motorboat for an hour, we traveled upstream along the Sangker River to the Prek Toal floating village. Unlike the floating village near Siem Reap, which is nowadays more geared toward tourism, this one is not visited by many tourists (tours to this part of the lake cost considerably more) and retains most of its authenticity. Most people were just going about their daily life.

Prek Toal

Prek Toal

Prek Toal

Prek Toal

It is a hard life to make a living on the lake, and it's harder still to have to migrate seasonally (as the water level of the lake changes, see this article to get an idea), but most people who came across were very friendly to us. A cocky fishing boy may use a side-eye to size us up, but they meant no harm or disrespect.

Woman and child

Fishing Boys

Before long we reached the headquarters of the Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve, where we would make a brief stop.

Prek Toal

From the top of the headquarters building, we would get a more expansive view of Prek Toal.

Prek Toal

In the trees around the building, I spotted a Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (this is a female), a new bird for me, and the only second sunbird I have ever seen (I saw my first one in Hainan, China in 2016).

Ruby-cheeked Sunbird

We would switch to a long and light skiff to traverse the more vegetation-choked waterways to the bird sanctuary.


As we navigated the waterways, we got closer looks at some colorful insect-eating (instead of fish-eating) birds, such as the Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Indochinese Roller, both were new to me.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Indochinese Roller

As we neared the sanctuary, we saw more water birds too, but most of them were flying high and far, such as this Asian Openbill (stork).

Asian Openbill

At last we reached a crudely constructed wooden platform above the mangrove canopy, where we could get a bird's-eye view (literally) of the sanctuary. Many birds were nesting on top of trees in the distance. This was great for bird viewing, but not so much for bird photography (the distance to the bird nesting colonies was great, and the evaporation of lake water created distortions in the air).

Bird Sanctuary

My consolation was a bird I saw in the trees just below the platform, and a beautiful dragonfly, the Scarlet Skimmer, that perched on the roof.

Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker

Scarlet Skimmer

Scarlet Skimmer

After spending about an hour on the viewing platform, we departed and retraced our steps across the waterway.

Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Lake

But we got another prize, a Grey-headed Fish Eagle perched on a dead tree trunk.

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

Our guide took us to the Queen Tara, an old riverboat that used to travel to Phnom Penh that's converted to a sunset tour and restaurant boat.

Queen Tara

On the way back to Siem Reap, we got a closer look at a Lesser Adjutant, a bird we saw in great distance at the sanctuary.

Lesser Adjutant

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