As in other areas of the country, many of the lake's poor villagers poached bird eggs and chicks in order to survive, which began endangering species. But a French organization called Osmose has introduced ecotourism on the lake, and former poachers now work as guides.
Just a two-hour boat ride west from Chong Khneas across the lake is the floating village of Prek Toal and the government-protected bird sanctuary. For optimal bird viewing times in early morning or dusk, visitors can stay overnight at the Prek Toal environmental station for a nominal fee.
Once inside the bird sanctuary, tourists spot rare and endangered birds not seen in any other parts of the world, including the painted stork, the spot-billed pelican and the grey-headed fish-eagle.
Like the guides of Tmatboey, years of poaching have made the rangers experts at uncovering wildlife. According to Osmose ecotourism developer Nick Butler, "They knew where the nests were, and they knew what time of year the birds would lay eggs."
But now that they're earning a better wage, poaching has almost been eliminated. And so far this eight-year conservation program has been a success. Many of the bird species – still endangered, but now protected – are making a comeback.
For example, Butler points to the Oriental darter, whose population improved eight-fold from 2002 to 2005. But, he also warns, "it's been a localized success story, [and the fate of the birds and the lake is] still very much in the balance."
Ecotourism in Cambodia is still "very much in its infancy," adds Butler. "It's a few small operations dotted around the country with no real coordination."
But since the Ministry of Tourism projects the number of tourists will double or triple in the coming years, Nick Butler and Karen Nielsen hope that ecotourism will mirror that growth.