A floating village on the northern reaches of the Tonle Sap, Mechrey is not the loveliest spot in the world, but it offers some great bird-spotting opportunities, as well as a chance to witness a unique way of life for those who live on the lake.
Of course, it’s not quite Prek Toal with its large colonies of waterbirds, whose populations are making a striking comeback according to a 2016 report issued by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Serious birders and nature lovers should certainly put that on their list of things to do. But it’s not as far away, nor as expensive to get to, either. We visited in early 2016, not the best time of year to enjoy the Tonle Sap admittedly, especially after two virtually dry rainy seasons, but we found much to enjoy nonetheless.
Mechrey is on the borders of Puok district, to the west of Siem Reap, and the journey there is in fact far lovelier than the destination. Do not nod off when your transport turns off the main road (National Route 6) onto a red dirt track, as there is some beautiful scenery along the 15 kilometre route that is flanked by waterways, rice fields and villages. We also spotted a huge group of storks whirling in the skies above along here, so keep your eyes peeled.
A community-based tourism station is at the edge of a long, human-built canal that connects with the Kambot River, which flows out into the Tonle Sap. Here communities mainly fish for a living from the ever-dwindling stocks of fish. The Tonle Sap is still the world’s most productive inland fishery, but the fish population faces dire and ever-growing threats. The profusion of fish is directly attributable to the rhythm of the lake, which rises and falls by up to 10 metres each year, and whose area increases six-fold from 2,500 square kilometres to 15,000 square kilometres during the wet.
The construction of dams upstream on the Mekong, and there are more in the pipeline, climate change, rampant over-fishing and conversion of lake areas to agriculture have all taken their toll. In 2015, it was reported that the Tonle Sap River scarcely reversed its flow the previous year; it would be unprecedented for it to not reverse flow, yet that grim prospect seems ever more likely. Without that life-giving rhythm, the future of the Tonle Sap, and the people who depend on it, which is more or less all of Cambodia, looks very murky.
The establishment of initiatives such as the one at Mechrey can’t strictly be called ecotourism, although it does give people alternatives to fishing as a source of income. But they are an opportunity to witness an extraordinary way of life that is also under threat, and to clock up some lovely birdlife.
The tour itself starts off in a pretty smelly artificial canal which you travel along for about a kilometre until the waterway opens out on to the main river and the floating village.
Here you glide by as life continues as it has long done: people shopping in floating markets, doing their laundry, catching a quick meal, going to school, sharing gossip with friends. You’ll be guided through it all, and then stop for a drink, or a meal of you wish, on one of the floating platforms. Lots of Cambodians also farm crocodiles, selling the meat and skins to Thailand, and you’ll get a chance to see one of the crocodile farms too.
Mechrey offers an opportunity to explore life as it is lived literally on the Tonle Sap Lake. It’s not as lovely a spot as the much further away Kompong Khleang, or offer as much cultural insight as Kompong Phluk, but on our visit, it did have the far greater opportunities to see birds. This may be thanks to its proximity to the waterbird colonies at Prek Toal, and also to the fact that it is less densely populated.