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Cambodia - Culture and Wildlife

New Galleries are now being prepared with photos from a cultural and wildlife tour of Cambodia

I have just returned from a very interesting trip to Cambodia in Southeast Asia. The Kingdom of Cambodia is bordered by Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and boasts one of the world’s great “bucket list” destinations, the temple complex of Angkor Wat, which was the original focus when planning the trip. The trip was organised by a company called Naturetrek, supported by Sam Veasna Conservation Tours, which combined cultural aspects such as Angkor Wat together with visiting some of the most important wildlife areas of the country accompanied by expert guides. We managed to see or hear around 300 different bird species during the trip. I have now started to prepare Galleries of the better photos of the hundreds of images captured during the trip (it is taking a bit of time to do all of the processing!). I have prepared this Blog to provide some background information which will hopefully be of interest regarding this fascinating country and help to support the Galleries, where many more photos can be found.

The Galleries are structured in four parts in a similar way to the already completed Sri Lanka Galleries, i.e. Culture and Landscapes, Animals (other than birds), Birds (A-M) and Birds (N-Z). These Galleries can be found in this link to the Asia main Gallery.

This Blog mainly covers cover the areas shown in red of the map of Cambodia below:

Angkor Wat Complex

The Angkor Wat Complex is situated near Siem Reap in the northwest of Cambodia (number 7 on the map). It was the centre of the Khmer Empire, or the Angkorian Empire from the 12th to the 15th centuries, following which it was largely abondoned. Forest has taken over many parts of the complex, which was 're-discovered' by Europeans in the 19th century. The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the visit included four main parts:

(1) Angkor Wat Temple - considered to be the largest religious structure in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire by King Suryavarman II during the 12th century, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the century; as such, it is also described as "Hindu-Buddhist". It fully warrants a place on a 'bucket list' of places to visit, not only for the majestic temple structure, but also for the detailed carvings throughout the inside of the buildings.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Temple main building

Carved figures, Angkor Wat Temple

(2) Ta Prohm Temple - It was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th century and early 13th century. The temple is referred to as the "Tomb Raider Temple" or the "Angelina Jolie Temple" due to its depiction in the Tomb Raider film. There are several examples where trees have grown through the temple buildings, which is fascinating to see and experience.

Ta Prohm Temple detail

(3) Bayon Temple - Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom. The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude (4 on each tower pointing to the 4 sides) of serene and smiling stone faces of Brahma on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. Surrounding the temple are walls with vast displays of bas-relief depicting the various gods, goddesses, and other-worldly beings from the mythological stories and epic poems of ancient Hinduism.

Bayon Temple towers

Bayon Temple external walls

(4) Angkor Thom Gates - The south gate entrance to Angkor Thom city is the most intact, along with a bridge of statues of gods and demons, and is justifiably a popular tourist destination.

Angkor Thom City south gates

Angkor forests - Forest and woodland scrub surround the Angkor Wat Complex, and it is a highly productive area for birdlife, including various woodpeckers, parakeets and hornbills. There is also re-introduction programme for pileated gibbons which is proving to be a success to date.

Great Hornbill

Pileated Gibbon

Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and is one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world, designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1997 due to its high biodiversity. There are many floating houses and villages on the lake where locals permanently live, adjusting to the large changes in the lake size during wet and dry seasons.

Typical floating house, Tonle Sap

Prek Toal - Part of the Tonle Sap region is a protected wildlife reserve home to many thousands of breeding birds (number 6 on the map). It is fascinating to witness so many egrets, herons and storks feeding and nesting.

Egrets and herons, Prek Toal

Indian Cormorants, Prek Toal

Ang Trapeang Thmor

Ang Trapeang Thmor (number 2 on the map) includes a reserve for the endangered Sarus Crane. It is a mixture of wet grassland, irrigated fields and deciduous dipterocarp forest. As well as supporting the migratory cranes during the dry season the habitat supports a wide variety of other birds.

Sarus Cranes in a heat haze, Ang Trapeang Thmor

Spotted Owlet in woodland Ang Trapeang Thmor

Florican Conservation Area

Travelling from Siem Reap to Tmatboey (number 10 on the map) we visited the Bengal Florican Conservation Area. The Bengal Florican is a critically endangered member of the bustard family, and the conservation area is one of its most important breeding grounds. Primarily grassland habitat it is also important for many other grassland species, including the critically endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting.

Female Bengal Florican

Male Yellow-breasted Bunting


Tmatboey is an isolated village in the Kale Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary (number 10 on the map). It is the centre for a wildlife tourism initiative to help conserve two critically endangered birds, i.e. Cambodia's national bird the Giant Ibis, as well as the White-shouldered Ibis. To date the initiative is proving to be a success with both birds increasing in numbers, although still very vulnerable to change in the environment. The White-shouldered Ibis was down to a single breeding pair in 2002! Many other bird species such as minivets, woodpeckers, cuckoos and owls thrive in this mixed habitat of seasonally flooded and burnt grasslands, open woodlands and patchy wetlands.

Giant Ibis

White-shouldered Ibis

Preah Vihear Temple

Just north of Tmatboey, in the Dângrêk Mountains on the border with Thailand, is the Preah Vihear Temple. The temple was built during the period of the Khmer Empire, and is situated on the top of a 525-metre (1,722 ft) cliff. There are wonderful views from the temple walls and the woodland setting provides habitat for a good variety of birds.

Preah Vihear Temple

View from Preah Vihear Temple

Carving detail, Preah Vihear Temple

Banded Bay Cuckoo in the Preah Vihear Temple grounds

Boeng Toal

There are three critically endangered vulture species in Cambodia, i.e. White-rumped, Red-headed and Slender-billed Vultures. Each species were once common in Southeast Asia but have suffered huge declines due to prosecution, habitat loss and diclofenac (a veterinary drug for cattle) poisoning. These vultures maintain a foothold in the Boeing Toal area (number 13 on the map), and local initiatives, including feeding stations, are in place to help stabilise and help to increase the vulture populations. The dry deciduous forest in the area also supports a wide range of birdlife.

White-rumped and Slender-billed Vultures

Brown Wood Owl

Mekong River, Kratie

The next stop was the small town of Kratie by the mighty Mekong River (number 22 on the map). The main activity was a boat trip on the river in search of the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin and the endemic and recently documented Mekong Wagtail, which only occurs on islands on the Mekong.

Irrawaddy Dolphin

Mekong Wagtail

Siema Wildlife Reserve and the Dak Dam Highlands

Moving on from Kratie the next area visited was the Siema Wildlife Reserve and the Dak Dam Highlands (numbers 23 and 25 respectively on the map). The fully protected Seima Wildlife Reserve consists of a mix of dry dipterocarp, evergreen, semi-evergreen and bamboo forest, and is one of the most important reserves in Cambodia for a great range of species including several species of primate. The world’s largest population of Black-shanked Douc Langur is to be found here with important populations of Southern Yellow-cheeked Crested Gibbon. A large variety of other animal and birdlife is also to be found. Listening to gibbons singing as they wake up at sunrise is one of my best ever wildlife experiences. The Dak Dam Highlands, as the name suggests, provided an opportunity to observe some birdlife making higher elevations their home, such as the Indochinese Barbet.

Male Southern Yellow-cheeked Crested Gibbon, Siema Wildlife Reserve

Black Giant Squirrel, Siema Wildlife Reserve

Ruby-eyed Pit Viper, Siema Wildlife Reserve

Indochinese Barbet, Dak Dam Highlands

Cambodian Tailorbird

On the way to Phnom Penh there was a stop to find the endemic Cambodian Tailorbird, which is found in the flooded scrub habitat where the Mekong meets the Tonle Sap River ('T' on the map).

Cambodian Tailorbird

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh City ('C' on the map) adjacent to the Tonle Sap River, is an interesting mix of modern skyscrapers and historic buildings, including the impressive Royal Palace, Wat Phnom Daun Penh Temple, and Independence Monument. We also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is very moving and thought provoking (no photos).

Sun setting over Phnom Penh and Tonle Sap River

Buddha inside the Wat Phnom Daun Penh Temple

Stupa of Suramarit, Royal Palace grounds

Phochani Pavilion, Royal Palace grounds

My overall feelings of Cambodia is it is a country full of warm, friendly people with a fascinating culture and history. The cultural areas visited were very rewarding. It has the potential to be one of the great wildlife destinations in the world. However, like most countries, it has suffered from years of conflict, wildlife hunting, trapping and habitat loss. The loss of larger mammals is most noticeable. A major political/cultural change is required to fulfil the undoubted potential. Saying that, some pristine areas remain that provide excellent habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. There are organisations such as the Sam Veasna Centre for Wildlife Conservation doing excellent work to help recover what has been lost and I witnessed this first hand, including some experiences I will never forget.

I would like to thank the team at Naturetrek for such well organised tour, including excellent guides and drivers. I hope that you have found this Blog interesting and enjoy the photos of this fascination region in the Galleries 😊


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