For the twitchers
Tomb Raider...However, much of this protected landscape is also cloaked in forest, making it a haven for birds—and heaven for twitchers that can appreciate finely carved pilasters as well as flocks of red-breasted parakeets. As a tune-up for an impending ramble into north-central Preah Vihear Province, one of the remotest wilderness areas in Southeast Asia, I accompany Sang Mony, a guide with the Sam Veasna Center, a local environmental nonprofit that conducts Cambodia birding tours, to the world-famous temples just three miles north of Siem Reap.
As dawn smudges the eastern sky, we cross a broad sandstone causeway spanning Angkor Wat’s 600-foot-wide moat. Over the metallic din of cicadas, Mony notes an Asian barred owlet’s soft, trilling hoot and a common myna’s bright, cocky whistle, a vocal talent that’s made this type of starling a pet-shop perennial. We admire the iconic temple’s central quintet of lotus-bud towers. When the crush of tour groups becomes too noisy, we head north through open forest bursting with an invisible bird chorus: cooing greater coucals, raspy red-throated flycatchers, loon-like lineated barbets.
We’re only a few hundred yards removed from one of the world’s most recognizable monuments, yet there’s not another soul around. Our solitude is rewarded every time we scan the trees: the egg-yolk-yellow plumage of a black-naped oriole; a black baza, a handsome hawk with a banded belly and rakish vertical crest; and an ashy minivet, a pedestrian-looking passerine with an impeccable pedigree—it was first scientifically described by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. After watching a pair of long-tailed macaque monkeys lope across the trail, we pass through the gopura, or gateway pavilion, of Angkor’s northern exterior wall to a placid stretch of the moat filled with wading birds, including male pheasant-tailed jacanas stalking across lily pads upon incredibly elongated toes while flaunting the special tail-feather extensions that are its breeding attire.
In the afternoon we admire the 800-year-old face towers and bas-relief sculptures of the Bayon and then tackle evocative Ta Prohm, another late-12th century temple, which is noted for its symmetrical layout, its fine stonework, and especially for the immense silk-cotton trees’ tentacle-like roots strangling nearly every structure. We thread our way through dim temple passageways and still courtyards, pausing to admire the detailed apsara dancer sculptures adorning the temple walls, to a towering jackfruit tree near Ta Prohm’s southern edge. Above us the branches are festooned with chattering red-breasted parakeets—highly social, foot-long birds known as “moustache parakeets” for their signature facial markings. Though common, their sheer, squawking multitude is breathtaking. It’s a memorable coda to a unique temple tour.