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Tomb Raider
Even on a visit to the most popular Cambodia tourist site, birds abound. Plus, tips on making the trip.

For most visitors to Cambodia, the top attraction is Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 100 ruins dating from the Khmer empire’s 9th century to 15th century reign. Though I’ve explored the 156-square-mile park on eight different occasions, I’ve always concentrated on its amazing architecture, exemplified by Angkor Wat, considered the largest temple ever built; the Bayon, famed for its face towers and galleries of bas-relief sculpture; and Ta Prohm, where choking vines and tree roots imbue the stones with a special Tomb Raider ambience.

However, much of this protected landscape is also cloaked in forest, making it a haven for birds—and heaven for twitchers that can appreciate finely carved pilasters as well as flocks of red-breasted parakeets. As a tune-up for an impending ramble into north-central Preah Vihear Province, one of the remotest wilderness areas in Southeast Asia, I accompany Sang Mony, a guide with the Sam Veasna Center, a local environmental nonprofit that conducts Cambodia birding tours, to the world-famous temples just three miles north of Siem Reap.

As dawn smudges the eastern sky, we cross a broad sandstone causeway spanning Angkor Wat’s 600-foot-wide moat. Over the metallic din of cicadas, Mony notes an Asian barred owlet’s soft, trilling hoot and a common myna’s bright, cocky whistle, a vocal talent that’s made this type of starling a pet-shop perennial. We admire the iconic temple’s central quintet of lotus-bud towers. When the crush of tour groups becomes too noisy, we head north through open forest bursting with an invisible bird chorus: cooing greater coucals, raspy red-throated flycatchers, loon-like lineated barbets.

We’re only a few hundred yards removed from one of the world’s most recognizable monuments, yet there’s not another soul around. Our solitude is rewarded every time we scan the trees: the egg-yolk-yellow plumage of a black-naped oriole; a black baza, a handsome hawk with a banded belly and rakish vertical crest; and an ashy minivet, a pedestrian-looking passerine with an impeccable pedigree—it was first scientifically described by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. After watching a pair of long-tailed macaque monkeys lope across the trail, we pass through the gopura, or gateway pavilion, of Angkor’s northern exterior wall to a placid stretch of the moat filled with wading birds, including male pheasant-tailed jacanas stalking across lily pads upon incredibly elongated toes while flaunting the special tail-feather extensions that are its breeding attire.

In the afternoon we admire the 800-year-old face towers and bas-relief sculptures of the Bayon and then tackle evocative Ta Prohm, another late-12th century temple, which is noted for its symmetrical layout, its fine stonework, and especially for the immense silk-cotton trees’ tentacle-like roots strangling nearly every structure. We thread our way through dim temple passageways and still courtyards, pausing to admire the detailed apsara dancer sculptures adorning the temple walls, to a towering jackfruit tree near Ta Prohm’s southern edge. Above us the branches are festooned with chattering red-breasted parakeets—highly social, foot-long birds known as “moustache parakeets” for their signature facial markings. Though common, their sheer, squawking multitude is breathtaking. It’s a memorable coda to a unique temple tour.

Cambodia: Making the Trip
Getting there: With no direct flights from the United States, visitors usually fly to Singapore or Bangkok, then connect to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Thirty-day Cambodian tourist visas are available on arrival; bring a passport-sized photo and $20.

Getting around: Cambodia’s infrastructure is slowly improving, although many unsealed roads require 4WD during the summer monsoon. Siem Reap–based Cambodia travel specialist ABOUTAsia specializes in custom tours, including all transport and guides.

More info: For general country information, visit the websites of Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism and Canby Publications, which produces the most useful city guides, including hotel and restaurant information.

For birders: Siem Reap’s Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation has exclusive access to some of Cambodia’s most spectacular birding areas, including Tmatboey. Another nonprofit, Osmose, specializes in ecotourss and cultural tours of the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest lake. BirdLife International provides information on Cambodia’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and rare avifauna. Bird-tour companies such as Birdquest and Birdtour Asia offer small-group expeditions.


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