Direct payments to communities or individuals have gained traction as a tool for species conservation; however, few studies have evaluated their effectiveness. From 2010 to 2014, we monitored nests and implemented a direct payment nest protection programme for six sandbar-nesting bird species on the Mekong River, Cambodia, and tested if nest protection improved reproductive success. Nests were guarded by community members; additionally, exclosures were used to protect nests of River Tern Sterna aurantia, the species of highest conservation concern. We investigated factors affecting nest and chick survival, and probability of nest failure due to egg harvest or predation. Nesting later in the season generally resulted in lower nest and chick survival. Nest protection improved survival rates of River Tern nests and chicks, and Small Pratincole Glareola lactea nests. River Tern nest success was 60% for exclosed (and guarded) nests, 29% for guarded (but unexclosed) nests, and 5% for unprotected nests. River Tern fledging success was 82% for exclosed chicks, 40% for chicks that were guarded only, and 2% for unprotected chicks. Small Pratincole nest success was 21% for guarded and 6% for unguarded nests. Egg harvest by humans was lower among protected nests and declined during the study. Nest predation by animals increased during the study despite nest guarding; however, predator exclosures effectively protected nests and chicks. Additional predator control measures could further improve reproductive success of sandbar-nesting birds. Overall, nest protection involving direct payments was highly effective, but required diligent use of nest exclosures, frequent monitoring, and strong community relationships.