After enduring years of bloodshed and oppression under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia now hosts growing numbers of nature-seeking tourists who come to discover some of the largest wilderness areas remaining in Asia.
April is Cambodia's driest month, yet the skies have cruelly poured rain during the entire hour-long drive east from Siem Reap, compounding the risk of colliding with speeding buses and errant livestock wandering two-lane National Highway 6. The real challenge begins once driver Thuy Chhoam turns south onto an earthen causeway stretching into a skillet-flat grid of rice fields. For the next half-hour we struggle through the mire, advancing less than three miles. My bird-mad guide, Sang Mony, remains unperturbed. Somewhere in these vanishing grasslands lurks the critically endangered Bengal florican, a stout, long-legged bird that is the world's rarest bustard species.
Chhoam eases his 4WD Pajero around enormous potholes and through the pudding-thick mess. Suddenly we fishtail, sliding perilously close to the causeway lip. Mony stares intently out the window, searching as always for birds. "Black drongo,'' he says calmly, as a dark blur wings low above the morass. A common-as-a-crow fork-tailed bird, but my conscientious guide doesn't want me to miss any of Cambodia's magic.
Not long ago Cambodia was an unrelenting nightmare: the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields, the unexploded ordnance scattered across the countryside. But with the collapse of Pol Pot's rebel movement in the late 1990s, the kingdom slowly grew more stable and secure. In 1998 Cambodia counted 290,000 foreign tourists; 10 years later, 2.1 million. The undeniable attraction is Angkor Wat, the monumental ruins of a civilization that dominated Southeast Asia a millennium ago. Lying just three miles north of Siem Reap, the ancient temple city's exquisitely carved lintels and bas-reliefs and its vaulting lotus-bud towers are a paragon of exotic world travel.
Cambodia also boasts some of the largest wilderness areas remaining in Asia. The brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which in 1975 drove the entire population into centralized slave-labor camps, had an unintended environmental effect: huge swaths of diverse habitat, including such birding hotspots as the Northern Plains' savannah and the Tonle Sap's seasonally flooded forest, essentially became uninhabited. "There were enormous expanses with very few people," says Mark Gately, Cambodia program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). "Wildlife was basically left to prosper.''
While peacetime land conversion and illegal logging and poaching have since exacted an undeniable toll, the Oklahoma-sized country still supports wild elephant herds, tigers, leopards, freshwater dolphins, and more than 550 recorded avian species. Among them are such large, charismatic, and endangered birds as the Bengal florican and the sarus crane, the world's tallest flying bird. Neighboring Thailand and Vietnam have their own riches, but not in such concentrations, nor in landscapes that blend such awesome archaeology with authentic adventure. At the top of my bucket list are two of the avian world's rarest, most elusive species: the giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis. Any chance of a sighting will eventually require a four-day quest into one of Southeast Asia's most remote and rugged corners.
We start our journey with a slog into the grasslands north of Tonle Sap lake, a crucial refuge for the florican, a two-foot-tall black-and-white bird with a three-digit global population. More than half survive in this shrinking prairie, which is swiftly being converted to commercial farming. In response to outside operators who have built dams for deep-water rice fields that flood the bird's habitat, the Cambodian government set aside more than 100 square miles in Siem Reap and neighboring Kampong Thom provinces as Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas. Working with the WCS and BirdLife International (National Audubon's global partner), the IFBA program promotes traditional agricultural practices such as grazing and burning that, paradoxically, maintain suitable florican habitat. The WCS also pays villagers $15 for each florican nest containing an egg ($20 if the nest contains two), and another $15 if it hatches. The windfall--a month's earnings for a subsistence farmer--protects nesting females.
Far from desolate, this near-treeless land is one of Cambodia's 40 Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Mony quickly finds a strutting male florican 150 yards away. With its long neck held erect, the elegant bird flaps its massive white wings and lifts 10 feet straight up. It briefly hovers like a helicopter before dropping back into cover. During our 90-minute stakeout, three other male floricans make the same breeding-season display.
The remarkable air show sustains us during the bruising, 100-mile drive into the Northern Plains, a vast mosaic of savannah and dry forest in Preah Vihear Province that once rivaled Africa for wildlife. Here, in the 1950s, biologist Charles Wharton found abundant elephant tracks and herds of large ungulates, including banteng, Eld's deer, and even kouprey. The kouprey, a type of forest ox now considered extinct, and elephants were shot out during the Pol Pot years; Khmer Rouge guerrillas fought here until the late 1990s. As we lurch along an unsealed road, Mony informs me that "a little bit" of land mines remain. Right on cue we pass a Cambodian Mine Action Centre camp near Koh Ker, a 10th century Angkor capital recently opened for tourists.