In early 1970, rumors spread around Phnom Penh of a white crocodile that had been sighted in the Tonle Bassac River, instilling fear into the cities inhabitants. White crocodiles are thought of as a bad omen in Khmer mythology, and subsequent events might have confirmed many people’s superstitions.
Although there are many swamps and rivers around the city, Siamese Crocodiles of any color are extremely rare in the wild these days, and I’ll be concentrating on the more everyday urban wildlife here.
The most obvious animal around is the common house gecko, known as gin-ja to the locals. You can spot them chasing bugs around light fittings on any ceiling, sometimes fighting, and often enough copulating. You will often hear them laughing, which somehow the locals interpret as crying. Their short life spans mean that it’s not that unusual for them to drop dead and fall off the ceiling either, so maybe the locals are right. A less often seen relation is the Tamarind Gecko, which can be seen on the tamarind trees along 240 Street.
The Tokay gecko is a bit harder to spot, being strictly nocturnal and reclusive but its loud voice is often heard. Its name derives from its loud call, TO-KAY, TO-KAY, gradually reducing in volume till it fades out. Many Asians think that more than 13 bursts of call means good fortune, you can usually count about nine before the sound ebbs, or you get bored.
If you are lucky enough to actually see one close-up, they are chunky creatures with vivid coloring, growing up to around 12 inches and as thick as your wrist. There is a widely believed myth that they are demons and will drop from the ceiling onto sleeping people and creep down their throats, to do some unknown evil deed. I’m not sure how an animal that large manages this trick, but they are known to have a hard bite that has been compared to a bulldog’s in strength. There are bats everywhere at night, swooping around any light source, just gaze up and you should see some flitting about.
Sometimes you’ll come across a whole colony, like the one that hangs on a tree near Wat Phnom. Fruit bats often rest in the awnings many townhouses have built on their roofs, leaving a telltale pile of fruit pips below. There was, until recently, a huge colony of bats living in the eaves of the national museum, but the tons of guano they were depositing on the exhibits obviously wasn’t appreciated, and they had to go. In some rural areas, bat soup is on the menu, it needs some careful preparation to remove a particularly foul smelling and inedible gland, but otherwise it is said to make a body hot inside, good for those cold sub-20 degree nights…
While monkeys are rare around the city, long-tailed macaques can often be seen around pagodas. There is a large gang of these macaques around the Wat Phnom/Post office area that pass their time stealing laundry, sniffing glue, scavenging from bins, attacking schoolchildren and generally causing a nuisance. They travel about above ground most of the time, and often use the jumble of cables that stretch over the streets to get about. Luckily for them, electrical wires are insulated here.
There was one friendly monkey who didn’t take that precaution, and used saunter across the park every day to a bar on 108 Street and shake hands with the owner outside. Unfortunately, on its stroll across one day it was beaten to death by some market vendors. They had probably had enough of its thieving.
Care should normally be exercised around these animals as they carry a nasty virus in their saliva and even a scratch will often lead to septicemia. Dragonflies are abundant, one called the Globe Skimmer, while not a particularly colorful example, migrates from as far away as Australia. I’m not sure why, but they seem to hover around bus stations. The Asian Scarlet Darter is a much brighter looking vivid red, slightly pinker than blood.
The caged birds that people pay to release for good merit around the city are mainly Scaly-breasted and White Nun Munias, although other birds such as Swallows and Bee-eaters may end up in the same cages. However, most of these birds are not native to the city, they have been caught and transported from the provinces, and the majority won’t survive long, even when freed. Birds are not easy to spot around the city, other than the Eurasian Sparrows, but there are a wide variety, and their call is often more familiar than their appearance.
Some of the more interesting birds around the skies of the capital include the Savanna Nightjar, and the Coppersmith Barbet. Probably often mistaken for a bat, the Savanna Nightjar is a large bird, often reaching wingspans of 13 inches or more. It is rarely seen due to its nocturnal nature, but can often be glimpsed above the airport road.
The Coppersmith Barbet is a familiar guest around pagodas, and gets its name from its unique call, which sounds like a hammer hitting an anvil. One of the prettier birds seen around town is the Scarlet Backed Flower Pecker, it is often seen darting around bushes, but is small and fast and not easily observed. The Common Tailor Bird, although minute in size, builds elaborate basket-like nests similar to those built by weaver-birds.
The Greater Hill Mynah, known throughout the world for its mimicking talents, is found in the forests of Cambodia, but is no longer native to the Phnom Penh area. Groups of White-vented Mynahs are a regular sight though, perhaps due to their brash nature. Streak-eared and Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Olive–backed Sunbirds, and Magpie Robins with their distinctive call are other well-known species living in town. Along the river, Whiskered Terns are common, and the rarer Caspian variety can sometimes be seen. So, next time you take the care to have a good look around you, you might be surprised at the variety of creatures that live here amongst us.