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A spot-billed pelican at Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. (Adam Bodley)

A Priceless Environmental Treasure

The Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia is your new favorite wildlife sanctuary

As the car left the sealed road and bumped off onto the deeply rutted, heavily scarred track, it became clear that this route would be un-passable at the wrong time of year — at least in a road vehicle.

During the rainy season, vast swathes of this area undergo seasonal flooding, and boats are the only way to get around. I was on my way to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, on the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia.

Most people visiting the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia head there for one reason — the fabulous temple complex of Angkor Wat — the oldest and largest religious monument in the world. It is true that no trip to this part of Cambodia would be complete without spending a couple of days visiting Angkor’s various temples. There is the main temple of Angkor Wat itself, the famous, strangler fig-encrusted Tha Phrom temple, as well as some of the more far-flung sites, such as the ancient Roluos Group of temple ruins.

For nature lovers, however, there is another reason to spend a few more days in the area. Located about two hours’ drive from Siem Reap, next to the Tonlé Sap Lake, Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary is home to many rare bird species, some of which breed in just one or two spots around the world. Many of these birds are migratory, and the best time for bird watchers is the dry season, which offers the greatest number and variety of birds.

Prek Toal floating village, Cambodia. (Adam Bodley)

The nearby Prek Toal floating village is also located on the Tonlé Sap Lake. During the dry season (December–April) parts of the village remain floating on the lake, but come the rainy season (May–November) the whole village transforms, and the reason for the tall stilts on which some of the permanent buildings stand becomes obvious.

A stilted house, Prek Toal. (Adam Bodley)

A must-see for bird watchers

In 2015, as Southeast Asia’s largest waterbird breeding colony, Prek Toal was designated a Wetland of International Importance (also known as a ‘Ramsar site’, after the Iranian city where the intergovernmental treaty, the Convention on Wetlands, was signed). The bird sanctuary is home, for part of the year at least, to an incredible variety of birds, many of which are increasingly rare. For example, the spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) is a near-threatened species which currently has breeding areas in just three locations around the world, Tonlé Sap Lake being one of them. Rarer still is the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius), an enormous stork that grows up to 1.5 metres tall, of which there are thought to be just 1,200 breeding pairs remaining in the wild.

Greater adjut