One of the good things about being ill is that I can look at pictures and edit. Though of course the bad thing is that I can’t sleep, get comfortable, feel weak and have FOMO. But before this misery beset me and after the temples, our guide pulled together a trip to Prek Toal for a home stay in one of the floating villages that borders the famous bird sanctuary. We lucked out completely. We had a long boat to ourselves with our boatman Ravy, who had some English and was wonderful on the two hour ride out of a boat launch on a canal of the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in SEA (62 miles at its widest) and one of the richest inland fishing grounds in the world, though very endangered. The ride was amazing especially when we got out into the broad lake. We finally figured out the engine/propeller rig is necessary as waterways are shallow especially in dry season. . In fact we got stuck in a small canal in the sanctuary and was pushed along African Queen style until we hit deeper water again. About that later. The main enterprise is fishing.
Finally arrive in Prek Toal which while visually interesting seems very impoverished. Hard to define poverty by US standards. The people seem healthy, sheltered, kids in school, eating well. The water is polluted, and fast, loud long boats karoom by. Cheap petrol is sold in jack daniel’s or plastic liter bottles. Fish, vegetables, ice, beer, charcoal come in by boat. It’s like the markets of the lower east side 100 years ago…only floating on bamboo rafts. Walls are corrugated metal, wood, palm leaves. Floors are wood. This is where we stayed
Our family was pretty well to do. He had a bar, snooker table, a restaurant (questionable) and a side room that we stayed in. Fairly comfy with mattresses on the floor like camping and a mosquito netting. This is when being constipated is a Blessing
The village from above. 1000 families live in Prek Toal. We were allowed to climb up a tower:
We get up very very early the next morning. It is considerably less noisy. The yahoos of the night before are still sleeping or getting ready for school. The fishermen are puttering quietly towards the big lake. The mourning pyre still burns, the gong still rings and the extremely loud chanting continues. This ritual of remembrance lasts 24 hours and we are only 12 hours in. Fortunately our new boat arrives. We board the narrow craft and motor through the last of the village and into the reeds. Our boatman is a local and swiftly navigates through the channels. Way cool.
When we leave the reedy pathways and come into the open water of the sanctuary we are open jawed at the beauty and plethora of bird life. Overhead, next to the boat, in marsh and trees, splashing, diving, swimming, squawking, soaring and doing what birds do best: flying free. And there are no other boats. For the time being we are sanctuary gluttons.
We motor on through this avian paradise and stop at a ranger station to collect a scope. We make a left down an extremely narrow channel where the dry season has left barely 6 inches of water and we go aground. We are so thankful Ravy came with us as he and the boatman pull the boat through mud and brambles. We want to get out to help float the boat but they insist we stay on board. The water finally allows us to move deeper and deeper into the forest.
The boat stops when the jungle is so densely knitted the channel disappears. The boatmen point upwards to a bamboo ladder and motion,”yes” with their heads. Up and up we tread and come out onto a small plaited bamboo platform above the canopy with an eye popping view of the sanctuary.
Hours have gone by, it is getting hot and we are both happily sated and reluctant to leave. We descend the 60 rungs or so back to our boat. We emerge back into open water and again are charmed. There are now a few larger boats with tourists on the water and we are appreciative that for a few magical hours we were the only humans among the birds.