Top notch birdwatching: A world of beautiful birds on Phnom Penh’s doorstep

One of the perhaps lesser-known wonders of Cambodia is the Kingdom’s abundance of exotic birdlife. The country is home — or host, in the case of migratory visitors — to over 670 different bird species, many of which are rare, and you don’t need to be a dedicated twitcher to see them in the wild. Nor do you have to travel far out of Phnom Penh for a fascinating birding experience as we — two enthusiastic but inexperienced birdwatchers — discovered when we took a half day birding tour with Vana Adventure Travel.

On the look out at Wat Pich Makot.

Thong was our friendly, knowledgeable guide; a bird-lover, keen conservationist and founder of the family-owned tour company. He and driver Narith picked us up from home at 5:30 a.m. (there’s a 2:30 p.m. alternative but we preferred to avoid the afternoon heat) and whisked us away to the wetlands of Kandal province, a short hop from Phnom Penh by ferry across the Mekong at its junction with the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, and a haven for winged wildlife.

A brief drive from the ferry point, Praek Ta Kov is the habitat of herons, cormorants, coucals, bitterns, and crakes to name but a few of the species. No sooner had we climbed out of the car than Thong began pointing out the variety of birdlife around us, some in clear view, others we would never have spotted without the help of the excellent binoculars provided and Thong’s patient advice on where to direct them. Having an expert guide who knew where to look, what to look for, and was clued up on the individual species proved invaluable and in less than an hour we had ticked off the cinnamon bittern, Chinese pond heron, white browed crake, pacific swift, oriental reed warbler, Asian green bee eater, scarlet-backed flowerpecker, and many more and were starting to feel like pros.

The country’s very own Cambodian tailorbird.

Back to the car for coffee followed by a highlight of the tour, a small bird found only in Cambodia and specifically in this particular part of the Mekong floodplain: the Cambodian tailorbird. Lured by a birdcall on Thong’s phone, our first tailorbird soon appeared out of the densely shrubbed habitat that is the reason this little red-headed fellow was only discovered in 2009 and finally recorded as a unique species four years later. Since then he’s been a special attraction for birders from around the world.

The scenic drive — a reminder of how close the capital is to stunning open countryside — was a treat in itself; a vista of colorful lotus ponds, expansive paddy fields, and thick mango groves. Mid-tour we stopped under a shady tree for a breather and brunch of fresh fruit and Khmer snacks provided by our hosts and enjoyed the glorious, peaceful landscape.

Home to roost: the oriental pratincole.

Our next destination was an area off limits later in the year due to high flooding. The oriental pratincole visits Cambodia’s wetlands to breed and here we were treated to the memorable sight of a huge flock of these distinctively-marked wading birds circling, swooping, and strutting round the rice fields that will be their nesting ground.

With over thirty entries now on our birding list we headed back to Phnom Penh via the lovely Wat Pich Makot, where the pagoda’s extensive, forested grounds provided a pleasantly shady spot to stroll and two particularly interesting sightings to round off the morning: the white rumped shama, spotted enjoying a juicy worm; and the white throated fantail.

A pair of scaly breasted munia.

Our tour lasted about five hours and involved some three kilometres of easy walking. Underfoot conditions were dry and dusty for us but can be muddy in the rainy season so suitable footwear and sun protection are essential as shade is limited. Chairs are available for those who want to sit down.

The photo opportunities are excellent for keen photographers with the right equipment. We were content to let Thong, armed with a professional birding camera, take care of the photography and send us his high quality photos the same day, leaving us free to focus (literally) on watching the birds go about their morning business. And what a morning! We finished the tour feeling we’d made a real connection with Cambodia’s birdlife and promising ourselves that our first birding tour will not be our last. After all, we have roughly 635 species still to see!

Our guide Thong (right) with driver Narith.

The Phnom Penh Birding Experience costs from $45 to $65 per person for group tours depending on the size of the group. Tours can accommodate up to ten people with five binoculars provided per group. The price for a solo tour is $85. We opted for a private tour (minimum two people) and found it well worth the additional 15% we paid for this. Vana Adventure Travel has more birding tours among its portfolio of cycling, hiking and local culture tours in Phnom Penh and beyond. These include the full-day Beyond the Oudong Temple and two-day Countryside and Kirirom National Park Adventure, which includes a local home stay. Prices vary according to the size of the group. More details are available from

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