Thousands of visitors pour into Cambodia each year, mainly to see the astonishing ruins of Angkor Wat. Most don’t realize that Cambodia has other treasures, wild treasures, which can be discovered by venturing into the back country. Now birders are exploring this fascinating country’s wild destinations, and finding a warm and welcoming populace. As for butterfly-lovers: you simply must go!
Fabled Angkor Wat draws most tourists to Cambodia, and rightly so!
The organizer and catalyst for ecotourism in Cambodia is the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, which is based in Siem Reap, the city next to the famed temples of Angkor Wat. The SVC organizes outings to wild backroads destinations for individuals and groups alike. The center meshes nature tourism with aid to village economies in the most impressive example I’ve ever seen of ecotourism at work. The center works in conjunction with its international partner, Wildlife Conservation Society.
Any tourist visiting one of the project sites pays a small fee to that village, through the SVC. Funds generated by SVC projects have enabled villages to dig wells for access to clean water, build schools and health clinics, and maintain roads and bridges. In return, the villagers have become the guardians of some of the most critically endangered birds anywhere. The entire effort looks very promising: endangered birds such as the White-shouldered Ibis have increased 15-fold at one site, Tmatboey, since the project started.
A huge moon moth in the Cambodian Dakdam mountains.
Thanks to the SVC, you can now arrange any length of trip, from a half-day’s outing to a month’s, and travel in a sturdy 4X4 SUV, with an excellent driver and a talented English-speaking guide. Suddenly the wilds of Cambodia are accessible. Conditions for travelers are more basic than in many countries, but they are quite manageable. I did not hesitate to organize a tour there, after my scouting adventure.
I first learned about the SVC through a long-time friend, Howie Nielsen, who trained the local birding guides in Cambodia for this project. We were mightily impressed by the guides we worked with, in particular Nara Duong, whose ability to find and identify birds is impeccable, and whose kindness and intelligence permeate his interactions with clients. Nara grew up as the son of poor farmers and through his own initiative, talent and spark––with the help of SVC––is crafting a different life for himself. In a place like Cambodia, even a small investment in ecotourism brings new hope and opportunity.
For your trip to Cambodia, let’s start with a good, inexpensive hotel on a quiet street not far from downtown Siem Reap: the Sonalong Boutique Village, my favorite of the several hotels I’ve tried. This inviting inn features beautiful gardens, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and spacious, basic yet comfortable rooms. It’s a quick tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap’s famous Night Market.
Sonalong Boutique Village offers refreshing, delightful repose in Siem Reap.
Your first step in trip planning is to peruse the SVC website, and decide which outings fit with the length of time you have, and what you’d like to see. I am writing a series of articles for MilesGeek on several of the SVC’s destinations, coming soon!
The Mekong Wagtail lives only along the Mekong River, and the Sam Veasna Center can take you on a short boat trip down the river, to enjoy both the wagtails and the Irrawaddy Dolphins!