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Exploring wetland along upper Mekong River in Stung Treng.

Trees with aerial roots exposed over the water, white sand islets dotted across limpid water, Irrawaddy dolphin pools and critically endangered fish breeding pools among braided channels and flooded forests; these are just some of the attractions drawing tourists from around the world to the upper Mekong River during dry season.

North of Stung Treng province's Stung Treng town is a wetland area of 14,600ha extending nearly 40km along the Mekong river straddling the Cambodia and Laos border.

It is designated under the Ramsar Convention - an international treaty working for the conservation of wetlands - as a Wetland of National and International Significance.

Every monsoon season whole forests are submerged under water, before re-emerging when the rains pass and the swollen Mekong river returns to the confines of its banks.

'The flooded forests are rich with natural resources and ecology, especially huge fish holes and endangered birds. The Ministry of Environment works hard to protect the Mekong wetland,' says Un Porsoeun, Stung Treng provincial tourism department director.

He says that with the area's abundant natural resources, there is a big market for eco and adventure tourism on the Mekong river to experience limestone rocks, water rapids, endangered birds and flooded forests with aerial root trees.

During dry season, when the majority of the water subsides, white beach islets surrounded by pristine water protrude from parts of the river bed, creating perfect spots for camping. Camping on the river's beach is a popular activity for both local and international tourists.

'In some areas, communities build huts on the river's beach. In fact, Koh Han Community Based Ecotourism [a tour group operating in the area] built many huts for tourists. In this area, there are flooded forests and rare birds,' says Porsoeun, adding that he only works with 'operators who help promote and raise awareness of tourism connected with nature'.

In the area there are many nature focused attractions, including the Mekong Bird Resort, Koh Khe, Koh Han and Koh Langor - a group of islands - and Thala Barivat district's Anlung Chheuteal, an area in which the Irrawaddy dolphin lives close to Cambodia and Laos border.

'This Mekong river trip is my favourite. And though it's a bit of a challenge as I can't swim, I love seeing Irrawaddy dolphins, visiting flooded forests, as well as camping and bathing in the river,' says 24-year-old Heang Hana, a furniture vendor who visited the area with a tour company.

The area's most unique attraction, however, remains its Romchek trees, that sit gnarled and twisted in the direction of the Monsoon water flow.

'We are unique from other areas as we have Romchek trees that visitors want to see with their aerial roots,' Porsoeun says. ''

Upper Koh Khe and lower Koh Khe are located 30km from Stung Treng town. Due to water levels, the former is only open to the public between October and May and the latter between January and May.

'Since upper Koh Khe is larger than lower Koh Khe, it can host thousands of people,' said Phaeng Sophat, upper Koh Khe Ecotourism Community's chief. 'Now we operate in the dry season, but we plan to welcome guests in the rainy season too. We will build about six or seven hut rafts for first time after we study water levels and the current.'

However, with the presence of many local and international tourists, provincial authorities are aware that increased visitor numbers could harm the local environment.

'We advise tourists directly and via tour companies to keep the environment clean. We have to work together by not to producing waste, cleaning the areas and not destroying the wetlands,' Porsoeun says.

He noted WWF data showed that there were only three remaining Irrawaddy dolphins living in Anlung Chheuteal today, so their environment must be preserved.
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Publication:The Phnom Penh Post (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Date:Mar 28, 2019
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