Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Road to Prey Veng

Let's move back in time to January in Cambodia. The hour is pre-dawn. I'm writing by lantern light outside my tent, which has been provided by the local community of Prey Veng. Here at our campsite, sounds are in transition from the unearthly, resonant songs of the night to those of day. In a distant village, a rooster crows. The cook is pouring water, preparing rice for breakfast. A few soft snores continue from the tent next door.

Sunrise at Prey Veng, Cambodia (Photos by Narca)

Light grows in the sky. The dawn chorus ramps up. A distant Great Eared Nightjar calls. Colors are becoming distinct. My mind drifts to yesterday. It was our first day to become acquainted with Nara, the birding guide assigned to us by Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation. We couldn't be more pleased!

Our guide, Duong Nara, is a jewel among guides: adept at bird vocalizations, sharp-eyed, exceedingly congenial, focused. We want to show him our birds in the States!

Yesterday's drive in was along a maze of single lane roads through dry deciduous forest. These weaving trails aren't made for cars, but rather for the small "walking tractors" that pull loads of firewood and anything else. Usually people pile on top of the load. The tractors also pull plows through the fields. They are narrower than cars, so using their paths requires high clearance, 4-wheel drive, and an expert driver––which our drivers, Da and Li, certainly are.

A "walking tractor"––one of the few we saw that wasn't loaded to the gills!

The area's maze has changed since Nara, Da and Li were last here, and at one point we take a wrong turn. (I'm not too concerned, even when the hour grows late––the car seats look to be a much more comfortable place to spend the night than the airplane seats had been on the flight here!)

As can happen, that wrong turn brings one of the great finds of the trip. A family of Great Slaty Woodpeckers undulates through the dry forest, landing not far away, posturing and screeching in excitement. Great Slaties are the world's largest woodpecker, since the demise of Mexico's even larger Imperial Woodpecker. Seeing a Great Slaty is one of my fondest wishes for the trip.

An enormous Great Slaty Woodpecker has a prehistoric look.

Our missed turn also brings other gems: a family of rare Black-headed Woodpeckers, a Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Bengal Bushlarks.

Crested Serpent Eagles are fairly common.

But Nara is growing anxious at the hour, and we retrace our steps, finding the turn we need after consultation with one of the few people we see. Then ensues a race to the river. We don't reach it before dark, but that's okay. It isn't a ford, I learn, but rather a rickety bridge, precariously crossing a ravine.

By daylight, this bridge didn't look quite as alarming, but still an interesting venture in a car!

We drive a couple more hours in the dark. At the end, we are weaving slowly between huge stands of bamboo, squeezing between bamboo and trees with, at times, less than an inch of clearance on either side. The sight of our camp at Prey Veng is welcome indeed.

Our campsite at Prey Veng

The camp crew, our drivers, and our guide Nara sleep in netted hammocks. We four have two big zippered tents, complete with floor, and two beds inside draped with mosquito netting. (Now, in the dry season, very few mosquitos trouble us anywhere.) The camp has a bush shower. The bush toilet, also encased in a zippered tent, is Asian-style––a flat porcelain fixture set over a latrine at ground level in a cement base. Westerners with stiff joints find it a challenge to use. Everything is very new and clean. The community of Prey Veng is investing in ecotourism.

Judging by this sign, Asians can be as puzzled by Western toilets as we can be by theirs. In a couple of places with a true throne, I saw muddy footprints on the sides of the seat.

The following day, our drivers discover a route across the now-dry rice paddies that avoids weaving between tight clumps of bamboo.

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