ULTIMATE CAMBODIA & LAOS BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, where we will stay for two nights.
This afternoon we will visit the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat (and the adjacent temples), one of the worlds most awesome cultural spectacles. The sacred remains here comprise around 100 temples and are only a small part of what was once a much larger religious and administrative centre. The complex was built between the 9th and 13th centuries AD to glorify a succession of Khmer kings. Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century and the temples were gradually cloaked by forest. However, after renewed interest in the site in the late 19th century, the forest that threatened to completely engulf the temples was cut back and restoration work continues to this day.
Although it will be hard to tear ourselves away from these amazing cultural treasures, it will be impossible not to notice a few birds in the impressive forest surrounding the temples and amongst the species that we may well encounter are the impressive Black Baza, Spotted Dove, colourful Red-breasted and Alexandrine Parakeets, Asian Barred Owlet, Brown-backed Needletail, House Swift, Asian Palm Swift, White-throated Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Lineated and Coppersmith Barbets, Barn Swallow, Ashy Minivet, Streak-eared Bulbul, Oriental Magpie Robin, Blue Rock Thrush (mostly of the migrant rufous-bellied race philippensis), Common Tailorbird, Hainan Blue and Asian Brown Flycatchers, Pied Fantail, White-crested Laughingthrush, Black-naped Oriole, Black Drongo, Common and Great (or White-vented) Mynas, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 2 Our stay at Siem Reap will give us the opportunity to visit a wetland of international importance. We will make an excursion by boat out onto the vast inland lake of Tonle Sap, to the huge waterbird colonies at Prek Toal. Tonle Sap is a huge fishery (and, in addition, up to a million water snakes are harvested here annually!) which provides a significant proportion of the Cambodian people’s entire protein intake. As a result, the fisheries are strictly protected and a by-product of this is that the waterbirds have been shielded from illegal poaching, resulting in the best remaining large waterbird colonies in South-East Asia (if not the whole of Asia!).
Setting off from the shore of this vast lake, we will first pass a floating village before crossing the lake, accompanied by hundreds of Whiskered Terns and occasionally a few Brown-headed Gulls.
Once near to the colonies we will switch to smaller boats and proceed up small side channels to some observation platforms where we will soon be amazed by the sheer quantity of birds, as thousands of cormorants, pelicans, storks and herons are constantly in view! Huge numbers of Indian Cormorants are joined by smaller numbers of Little and Great Cormorants and Oriental Darters. Black-backed Swamphens adorn the waterside vegetation and mixed flocks of Little, Eastern Cattle, Eastern Great and Intermediate Egrets are joined by dozens of Grey and Purple Herons, Chinese Pond Herons (which can sometimes be compared side-by-side with Javan Pond Heron) and smaller numbers of Striated (or Little) Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons. Asian Openbill is the commonest stork species, but these are joined by good numbers of Painted Storks and, in the frequent ‘kettles’ of storks overhead, we will look carefully for Lesser Adjutant and the very rare and impressive Greater Adjutant, both of which have good populations here. Spot-billed Pelicans (here at their only colony in Southeast Asia) are delightfully numerous and we will get many opportunities to watch the antics of these impressive beasts. Smaller numbers of Black-headed Ibises are mixed in with the colonies and, with a bit of luck, we will encounter the rare Milky Stork at its only known freshwater breeding colony in the world.
Raptors are also in evidence: Western Ospreys can sometimes be seen perching on the bamboo poles used by the fisherman, Brahminy Kites may wheel overhead and the stately Grey-headed Fish Eagle is frequently encountered. Common Kingfishers and attractive Black-capped Kingfishers are sometimes seen along the channels and in the waterside vegetation, we may well encounter species such as Common Moorhen, Bronze-winged Jacana, Greater Coucal, Black-browed and Oriental Reed Warblers, Pallas’s Grasshopper (or Rusty-rumped) Warbler (common by voice but often hard to see), Yellow-bellied Prinia, Olive-backed Sunbird and Southern Jungle Crow. We may also encounter one or two of the scarcer species of the area such as Yellow Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Ruddy-breasted Crake or Red-necked Phalarope.
On the way back to Siem Reap we will explore an area comprising open fields, rice paddies and marshy pools which is home to a wide variety of species. The pools and partly-flooded paddies attract Lesser Whistling Duck, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Garganey, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, Oriental Pratincole, Little Ringed Plover, Pacific Golden Plover (uncommon), Common and Pintail Snipes, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Pied Kingfisher, whilst Greater Painted-Snipe, Lanceolated Warblers, Plain Prinias and Zitting Cisticolas skulk around the edges. Eastern Yellow Wagtails are often numerous and are mostly of the form macronyx, known as Eastern Grey-headed Wagtail. Other likely new birds here include Peaceful Dove, Plaintive Cuckoo, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Brown Shrike, and White-shouldered and Black-collared Starlings.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 3 Near the eastern end of Tonle Sap and we will visit an area of seasonally flooded grassland that is rich in birds. Top priority for us here will be the impressive and rare Bengal Florican. We have an excellent chance of finding this handsome bustard. We will also have a chance of finding the restricted-range and seldom-seen Manchurian Reed Warbler. We should also find some Sarus Cranes of the rare southeast Asian subspecies, sharpei.
In areas of shorter grassland, we will, if we are in luck, flush King (or Blue-breasted) Quail and Barred Buttonquail, and if we are very fortunate we will find some migrant Oriental Plovers which may include dapper white-headed males. Indeed, it is likely that the vast Tonle Sap floodplain is an important stopover site for this poorly-known species.
We will also come across a number of widespread open country species such as Black-winged Kite, Eastern Marsh Harrier, the stunning Pied Harrier, Red-wattled Lapwing, Lesser Coucal, Horsfield’s Bush Lark, Oriental Skylark, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Red-rumped Swallow, Richard’s, Paddyfield and Red-throated Pipits, Pied Bushchat, Bluethroat, Dusky Warbler, Striated Grassbird, Asian Pied Starling and the declining Red Avadavat.
If we are fortunate we will come across one or two of the more elusive inhabitants of this area such as Cinnamon Bittern, Small Buttonquail or Siberian Rubythroat.
Afterwards, we will begin our three nights expedition to look for the incomparable Giant and White-shouldered Ibises by driving north to the village of Tmatboey in Preah Vihear province in north-central Cambodia. Owing to the much-improved roads, our progress will be much faster than it used to be. During the journey, we should encounter a few new species, including the localized Rufous-winged Buzzard and Yellow-vented Bulbul, and we also have a good chance for the uncommon White-rumped Falcon and the smart little Collared Falconet. We should arrive at Tmatboey in time for some initial exploration.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Days 4-5 The area in which the Giant and White-shouldered Ibises have been found is part of the low-lying, extended floodplain of the Mekong River in the northern part of Preah Vihear province. Flooded for much of the year, the area is only accessible to motor vehicles for a few months during the dry season! The area consists of large open plains interspersed with extensive tracts of dry, open, deciduous forest, with areas of denser evergreen forest close to watercourses. As the floodwaters recede through the dry season (and the heat increases!), the available wetland habitats become gradually fewer until just a relatively few small forest pools remain. These pools, known locally as ‘trapeang’, concentrate the waterbirds, and in particular the Giant and White-shouldered Ibises. Our visit is timed to be late in the dry season and we will be concentrating our efforts on a number of these ‘trapeangs’ for our quarry. Birds are shy here due to decades of hunting (although the ibises are not specifically targeted) and as we walk through the open woodland from one trapeang to the next, the first sign of the ibises is likely to be boreholes in the muddy edge of one of the pools, indicating where they have been feeding, or we may hear their strange crane-like bugling. Eventually, with some careful stalking through the forest and with some luck, we will hopefully obtain good views of these near-mythical species. The search could well be quite long, but there is a high chance our efforts will be richly rewarded. Other species attracted to the pools may well include Woolly-necked Stork, White-breasted Waterhen and Green Sandpiper.
It is the deciduous and dry-dipterocarp forests, however, that hold the bulk of the species inhabiting the area and, although they go very quiet in the heat of the day, we should encounter many species, including Shikra, Crested Goshawk, Crested Serpent Eagle, the attractive though elusive Chinese Francolin, Red Junglefowl (more often heard than seen for obvious reasons!), Yellow-footed and Orange-breasted Green Pigeons, Green Imperial Pigeon, the rare and semi-nomadic Pale-capped Pigeon, Common Emerald Dove, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Indian and Banded Bay Cuckoos, Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Blossom-headed Parakeet, Crested Treeswift, the intriguing Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Blue-eared Barbet and a rich variety of woodpeckers (including the prehistoric-looking Great Slaty Woodpecker, the beautiful Black-headed Woodpecker, Grey-headed, Freckle-breasted (or Spot-breasted), Yellow-crowned, Rufous, Grey-capped, Rufous-bellied and White-bellied Woodpeckers, Lesser Yellownape and both Common and Greater Flamebacks).
Passerines include Olive-backed Pipit, Black-headed and Sooty-headed Bulbuls, the colourful Golden-fronted Leafbird, Large and Indochinese Cuckooshrikes, Scarlet, Small and Swinhoe’s Minivets, Common and Large Woodshrikes, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Blue-winged Leafbird, Common and Great Ioras, the localized Brown Prinia, Rufescent and Grey-breasted Prinias, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Yellow-browed, Two-barred and Radde’s Warblers, White-rumped Shama, Taiga (or Red-throated) and Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, White-browed Fantail, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush (uncommon), Puff-throated and Chestnut-capped Babblers, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, the attractive Burmese Shrike, Ashy, Bronzed, Hair-crested and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Rufous and Racket-tailed Treepies, Black-hooded Oriole, Chestnut-tailed Starling, the localized Vinous-breasted Myna, Common Hill Myna, Neglected (or Burmese) Nuthatch, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Grey Tit, Indochinese Bush Lark and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker.
With luck, we will also encounter one of the scarcer inhabitants of this fascinating area, such as Asian Emerald Cuckoo or White’s Thrush.
Several species of owls and nightjars are present and we will try to find some of these. Possibilities include Brown Fish, Oriental and Collared Scops Owls, Spotted and Brown Wood Owls, Brown Hawk-Owl and Large-tailed, Savanna and Indian Nightjars.
Open country species found here include Red Collared Dove, Asian Koel, the vivid Green Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Purple Sunbird, and Scaly-breasted and White-rumped Munias. If we are lucky we will also find Yellow-legged Buttonquail.
Whilst mammals are not conspicuous in this habitat, we should encounter the attractive Finlayson’s Squirrel and the ground-loving Indochinese Ground Squirrel.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 6 After some final birding at Tmatboey we will head eastwards to Okoki for an overnight stay. We will arrive in time for a first try for the elusive White-winged Duck. At night we can look for Blyth’s Frogmouth, and there is even a chance for the sought-after Oriental Bay Owl.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 7 Okoki is situated in the remote Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. Most of the habitat here is dry dipterocarp woodland, but pools along the watercourses hold a small population of the rare, endangered and hard-to-see White-winged Duck. The best chances are around dawn and dusk, and we will certainly be making a serious effort to see this superb bird during our visit.
The avifauna at Okoki largely overlaps with that of Tmatboey, but here we have chances for the magnificent Green Peafowl and the superb Bar-bellied Pitta, as well as Banded Kingfisher, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Black-and-red and Banded Broadbills, Grey-eyed and Puff-throated Bulbuls, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler and Plain Flowerpecker. Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo occurs here, but it is very hard to see.
Late today we will transfer to Boeng Toal for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 8 This morning we will go inside an observation hide (or blind) early so that we do not disturb the vulture feast that will develop in front of the hide. Up to 70 vultures turn up at this vulture ‘restaurant’ at Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary, which is operated for conservation purposes. The major speciality here is the rare Slender-billed Vulture, and there are also White-rumped and impressive Red-headed Vultures. Vultures have declined markedly over most of Asia, owing to habitat destruction, diminution of natural food and, more recently, the catastrophic impact of the veterinary drug diclofenac (which has resulted in a vulture Armageddon in some places, such as India). Mercifully Cambodia has little or no use of diclofenac, so the prospect for vultures in this part of the country remain good, with the help of supplementary feeding. Expect some wonderful views!
Sometimes Greater Adjutants and even Golden Jackals (and rarely even other mammalian scavengers) turn up at the feeding station.
Afterwards we will head south to Kratie, situated on the banks of the mighty Mekong, for an overnight stay. Late this afternoon we will visit an area of wetlands and paddyfields where we shall be looking out for the rare and declining Asian Golden Weaver which can still sometimes be found in this area alongside Streaked Weaver. The area is also good for Little Grebe, Watercock, Ruddy-breasted and White-browed Crakes, the attractive Plain-backed Sparrow and Red Avadavat. Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler is easier to try and see here compared with our boat trip at Prek Toal. With luck we will also come across the rapidly declining Yellow-breasted Bunting.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 9 During the morning we will visit an area of deep water pools in the Mekong where we can expect to find the recently described and extremely localized Mekong Wagtail (it is very distinctive, looking like an African Pied Wagtail). We should also see some endearing Irrawaddy River Dolphins. This cetacean is now endangered in the Mekong, with numbers in the river down to around 70. We should also see numbers of waterbirds around Kratie, among which may be Black Bittern, Indian (or Burmese) Spot-billed Duck, the diminutive Small Pratincole and Common Sandpiper.
Afterwards, we will head for Pursat for an overnight stay. We will break our journey at a site for the recently-described Cambodian Tailorbird, which we have an excellent chance of seeing.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 10 The near-threatened Chinese Grassbird, a species that can otherwise only really be seen on the Birdquest Burma (Myanmar) tour or in Hong Kong, has recently been discovered near Pursat. We will be looking for it early this morning in the extensive grasslands that remain in this seldom-visited area, assisted by their distinctive vocalisations. There will also be chances for Small Buttonquail, as well as a range of other grassland birds.
Afterwards, we will drive to Kampot, situated on the southwest coast of Cambodia, for a three nights stay.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Days 11-12 Kampot is our base from which we can explore the remaining forests around the nearby former French hill station of Bokor, which is now reached by a fast road. At Kampot itself, we will have an opportunity to look at the Germain’s Swiftlets fluttering overhead. In 2004, the Birdquest group found these swiftlets nesting in Kampot and this not only helped to clarify which species they were (as they had white, ‘edible-type’ nests), but was also the first documented breeding of any swiftlet species in Cambodia!
As we climb up through the evergreen forest to Bokor we will soon start to notice new species and by the time we reach the top of the escarpment, we will be in refreshingly cool, stunted montane forest, a welcome relief from the steamy-hot lowlands we have left behind. Formerly a haunt of weekend gamblers, the old hill station now largely comprises derelict and run-down buildings (a setting that has been used for more than one film), although there has been some more recent construction.
Our main quarry at Bokor is the beautiful and near-endemic Chestnut-headed Partridge, which ranges through the largely inaccessible Cardamom and Elephant Mountains and reaches the southern edge of its range at Bokor. As with all Asian forest partridges, it is shy, but we have a good chance of seeing it.
The partridge mostly occurs in the stunted forest on the plateau and whilst exploring this area and the access road which traverses taller forest we should encounter many other new species. Noisy Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos and White-browed Scimitar Babblers are likely to be a prominent feature, whilst a number of confusing warblers occur including Pale-legged Leaf and Kloss’s (or White-tailed) Leaf Warblers and the retiring Alstrom’s (or Plain-tailed) Warbler. In areas of taller forest, noisy wing-beats are likely to draw our attention to Wreathed Hornbills and spectacular Great Hornbills, whilst colourful Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons and Long-tailed Broadbills somehow remain inconspicuous in the mid-storey below.
Other species we may well encounter include the lovely Indochinese Green Magpie, as well as Rufous-bellied Eagle, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Thick-billed and Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Green-billed Malkoha, Oriental Dollarbird, the restricted-range Green-eared and Moustached Barbets, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Great Iora, Black-crested, Stripe-throated, Grey-eyed and Ochraceous Bulbuls, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Yellow-bellied Warbler, the shy Mugimaki Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher, Large Scimitar Babbler, Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, Little Spiderhunter, Ruby-cheeked and Crimson Sunbirds, Black-throated Sunbird (here of the endemic subspecies cambodiana), Thick-billed and Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers, Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers of the near-endemic form cambodianum (which lacks red on its breast) and Oriental White-eye.
We should also come across one or two of the scarcer or shyer inhabitants of the forest such as the secretive Scaly-breasted Partridge, the diminutive Collared Owlet (easy to hear, but not to see), the beautiful Blue Pitta, Siberian Blue Robin or Streaked Wren-Babbler. We might also come across one or two northbound migrants, such as Grey-faced Buzzard, Forest Wagtail, Eyebrowed Thrush or Arctic Warbler.
We will also explore some saltpans where we will find numerous migrant shorebirds, including Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Kentish Plover, Red-necked and Long-toed Stints, and Broad-billed, Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, as well as Caspian and perhaps Gull-billed Terns. If we are lucky we will also encounter the scarce Malaysian Plover or the rare Asian Dowitcher. This is a little-known area and so we shall be on the lookout for any migrant surprises. In the surrounding mangroves, we should find Collared Kingfisher and Golden-bellied Gerygone.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 13 After some final birding in the Kampot area we will drive to Phnom Penh airport and take a flight from to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where we will overnight.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 14 We shall set off early and drive to an area of the Mekong river upstream from the capital of Laos where a population of Jerdon’s Bushchats breeds among the bushes exposed on the riverbed during the low-flow season at this time of year. We should find the smart males perching on tall stems, singing away in the morning cool.
Along the river, or in forest remnants, we should also find River Lapwing, White-browed Piculet, Grey-throated Martin, Wire-tailed Swallow and Red-whiskered Bulbul.
Afterwards, we will travel into Central Laos along good roads, eventually passing through very scenic areas dominated by dramatic karst limestone outcrops before finally reaching the village of Ban Nahin, where we will stay for two nights. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 15 Our main target in the Ban Nahin area will, of course, be the Bare-faced Bulbul, and we may well see it perched atop the pointed tips of the limestone pinnacles and perhaps gliding from one to the other. This new species is only known from two areas in Laos, and this is the most accessible of the two. We will also be looking for two other limestone specialists. We should encounter Sooty Babbler, a species endemic to the karst country of Laos and adjacent Vietnam, and, with a bit of luck, the restricted-range Limestone Leaf Warbler.
The full potential of this area is only now becoming clear, and we may well have a chance to find one or two other specialities, such as Pied Falconet, Red-vented Barbet, Pale-headed Woodpecker or and Black-browed Fulvetta. Much more difficult are Silver Pheasant, Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl, Eared Pitta and White-tailed Flycatcher.
Other species we may well encounter in the evergreen forest here include Oriental Hobby, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Speckled Piculet, Buff-breasted and Spot-necked Babblers, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Green-backed and Sultan Tits, and Streaked Spiderhunter. More uncommon but widespread species include White-throated Fantail and Orange-bellied Leafbird.
Mammals will be few and far between due to the hunting pressure that persists in this part of the world, but we may be lucky enough to find the globally threatened and endemic Lao Langur.
Ultimate Cambodia & Laos: Day 16 After some final explorations in the Ban Nahin area we shall retrace our steps to Vientiane, where our Ultimate Cambodia & Laos birding tour ends late this afternoon.
MOUNT AURAL PRE-TOUR EXTENSION
Mount Aural Extension: Day 1 The extension starts at Phnom Penh airport around midday, from where we will drive northwestwards to Aoral (or Aural) district in Kampong Speu province, near the foot of Mount Aural (or Phnom Aural) in the Cardamom Mountains, for an overnight stay.
Mount Aural Extension: Day 2 Early this morning we will drive to the base of the mountain and then walk up to Aural Camp for a two nights stay. At 1813m, Phnom Aural (or Aoral) is the tallest peak in Cambodia. To protect the biodiversity of these remote and still largely forested mountains, Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary was established. The hike up to Aural Camp is quite long and fairly demanding, as we have to gain about 800 metres during the day, but the trail is good and we will take it slowly, birding as we go.
Mount Aural Extension: Day 3 In the Cardamom Mountains we will primarily be searching for the endemic Cambodian Laughingthrush. This species has been seen by very few birders owing to the inaccessibility of its tiny range, but here we have an excellent chance of finding some.
The other main targets will be the endemic lewisi subspecies of Silver Pheasant and Green Cochoa, along with endemic forms of Blue-winged Minla and White-tailed Robin. Additional species may well include Grey Nightjar, Bamboo Woodpecker, Grey-chinned Minivet, Mountain Bulbul, Chestnut-crowned Warbler and Little Pied Flycatcher, as well as many species that we will also be seen during the main tour.
Mount Aural Extension: Day 4 Today we will head back down the mountain from our camp and return to Phnom Penh for an overnight stay.
Mount Aural Extension: Day 5 This morning we will take a flight to Siem Reap and join up with those arriving for the main tour.