The Mighty Mekong River. Think of it as the Mississippi of Southeast Asia.
This beast flows through six countries, originating in the Tibetan plateau of China and finally joining the sea at the bottom of Vietnam. It river is the lifeblood of millions of people who live and work on it. It also is home to endangered species, two of which we visited on the Mekong and many on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia.
We enjoyed six nights along the Mekong near the small city of Kratie. Our first critter excursion was to hop a boat at Kampi, to visit the Irrawaddy river dolphin. These dolphins live in small, isolated groups in various freshwaters or brackish waters throughout Southeast Asia. There are only about 80 of them in Cambodia and possibly only a few thousand total, putting them squarely on the endangered list. Most are casualties of net fishing. The village of Kampi has started tours of the river for tourists to see these dolphins, as a way to raise awareness and funds to keep these dolphins from extinction. It also helps the villagers make a better living than they would just fishing and farming.
Lacking the graceful features of ocean dolphins, these cute, round-headed critters still gave us quite a show. Like other dolphins, they have the face of a perpetual smile.
It’s tough to catch them on video, though Ken tried…
Luckily, our fellow traveler Julian was armed with a zoom lens and a quick trigger finger, and got some great stills, which he let us “borrow”.
Further up the Mekong, we stopped at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center.
This facility helps another, highly endangered animal: the Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle. They are one of the world’s largest and rarest freshwater turtles. Thinking the animals had gone extinct after none had been spotted for over 4 years, scientists made a great discovery in 2007 by finding a small population in the Mekong near Sambor Village. In 2011, the conservation center was opened as a hatchery and education center.
Tourists can visit and see these guys close-up. Thank goodness, too, as these turtles are nearly impossible to spot in the river. They bury themselves in the sand at the bottom of the river and only come up for air two times a day. As we toured the center, we got a closer look at these funny looking critters. They are light brown, very flat and even have a little pokey nose. They have a good chance of survival, thanks to prayers from the local monks. The center is located next to the 100 Pillar Wat and the monks give much support to these rare animals.
And on our last full day in Cambodia, I went to see the birds of Prek Toal. This is a flooded forest reserve on Tonle Sap lake and is home to tens of thousand of breeding birds. They come during the dry season and put on quite a show, filling up all the tall trees they can find with nests.
I took a tour organized by the Sam Veasana Center, which works to preserve the area and help the locals earn a living wage. Before the center, the locals would take the eggs and chicks for food. Since creating the reserve in 2001, the bird species numbers have improved every single year. Taking a long boat out to a very questionable viewing platform (OSHA would not approve), I was treated to a great view of cormorants, pelicans, kingfishers, hawks and 4 kinds of storks.
Heading out of the reserve proved exciting when the driver lost his way. The boat trails are marked simply by plastic trash bags. At one point the bags ran out and large trees and growth blocked our path.
He tried a few ways to get out and was not successful. Taking stock of the dwindling water and the few pieces of fruit for the 7 people on the boat, images of Lord of the Flies entered my brain. After an hour, the driver successfully found the way out. And while famished, we managed to keep from eating each other and made it to a very late lunch.
While Cambodia’s civil war took its toll on the country’s critters, the Khmer people are beginning to realize they cannot waste the special wildlife they do have. It was great to support the conservation work being done there and to enjoy some views of cute critters and life on the water.