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The engine of this phenomenon is the Mekong River, which becomes bloated with snow melt and runoff from the monsoon rains. The swollen Mekong backs up into the Tonle Sap at the point where the rivers meet at Chaktomuk, forcing the waters of the Tonle Sap River back into the lake. The inflow expands the area of lake more than five-fold, inundating the surrounding forested floodplain and supporting an extraordinarily rich and diverse eco-system.

More than 100 varieties of waterbirds including several threatened and endangered species, over 200 species of fish, as well as crocodiles, turtles, macaques, otter and other wildlife inhabit the inundated mangrove forests. The Lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive - floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.

The sanctuary at the Prek Toal core area of the Biosphere Reserve has been called "the single most important breeding ground in Southeast Asia for globally threatened large waterbirds." The Biosphere covers 31,282 hectares at the northwest tip of the Lake and plays host to species including Greater and Lesser Adjuncts, Black-headed Ibis, Painted Stork, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican, Grey-Headed Fish Eagle and many more species. Of the three Biosphere core areas on the Tonle Sap Lake, Prek Toal is the most accessible from Siem Reap and the most popular with birdwatchers. The best time of year for viewing is the dry season (December-May) when flocks of migratory birds congregate at Prek Toal. As the dry season progresses and the water recedes, the number of birds increases but the travel to some of the more important viewing areas becomes more difficult.

More Bird Watching

Away from the lake, northwest of Siem Reap the Ang Trapeng Thmor Sarus Crane Reserve offers another unique birdwatching opportunity.

Ang Trapeng Thmor Sarus Crane Reserve
(The following about Ang Trapeng Thmor comes courtesy of the Sam Veasna Center.) Originating as a reservoir on the Angkorian highway 66 it was rebuilt as a man-made irrigation and water storage reservoir by slave labor during the Khmer Rouge Regime in 1976. The reservoir now harbors a unique wetland associated with grassland, dipterocarp forests and paddy fields. Aside from being a feeding ground for more than 300 Sarus Crane in the dry (non-breeding) season, more than 200 species of other birds occur here, of which 18 have been classified as globally or near globally threatened. This is also one of the handful of sites in Cambodia where the endangered Eld’s Deer can be seen. Colonies of fruit bats inhabit larger trees that are often semi submerged on the edge of the reservoir.

The best time to see the Sarus Crane is from February to May though an abundance of bird species can be viewed all year. There is also a hill top Angkorian temple a few kilometers into the forest while traditional silk weaving is still practiced in the adjacent village. A boat trip can be taken on the reservoir which depending on the time of year is 11km along and 8 wide and offers fantastic views of the surrounding countryside

Officially declared a Sarus Crane Reserve by Royal Decree in 2000 the area designated covers over 12000 Hectares, following the work of Sam Veasna and his friends at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), all foreign visitors are required are required to register at the WCS Office in the adjacent village.