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Exploring Tonle Sap Lake and it’s floating villages near Siem Reap
You might be planning a trip to Cambodia and be asking the question “but what else is there to do in Siem Reap besides temples?”. Well perhaps one of the lesser-known gems that many travellers skim past because they are understandably enchanted by the magic of Angkor Wat is the mighty Tonle Sap Lake and its floating villages (like Kompong Phluk). A visit to Tonle Sap floating village is one of the best things to do in Siem Reap and its uniqueness makes it a definite contender on any bucket list for Southeast Asia!
What is unique about Tonle Sap?
Quite simply, Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Due to its abundance of nature including a seasonal population of waterbirds, it is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In the rivers and waterways which flow into the lake, there are a multitude of settlements, termed ‘floating villages’, which the fisherman who harvest the waters of Tonle Sap call home along with their families. The stilted wooden huts that make up the floating villages, like the village of Kompong Phluk, have a resemblance to those which line Bangkok’s khlongs (canals), but how they tower above Tonle Sap Lake makes them pretty special.
Why is Tonle Sap Lake important for Cambodia?
Not only is Tonle Sap Lake one of the most jaw-dropping places in Asia, it is more importantly an an invaluable ecosystem to Cambodia – it’s flooded trees purify the water, it provides half of all the fish consumed across Cambodia and is one of the most productive fishing lakes in the world, and its environment provides the perfect breeding and feeding ground for marine wildlife and other creatures.
Tonle Sap River is connected to the Mekong which it meets in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Magnificently it is the only river which changes its direction of flow seasonally throughout the year. By around June, the Tonle Sap River will flow back into its own lake instead of away from it, because the Mekong water levels are so high and the force of the water creates a reversal in direction of current. For the next few months, the water from the Mekong flows upstream to Tonle Sap river, spilling into Tonle Sap Lake, which essentially acts as a massive bathtub for the Mekong. This process means that agricultural land is fertilised and irrigated, and the area is provided with an abundance of water and wildlife.
Is Tonle Sap drying up?
Tonle Sap Lake can more than quadruple in size during the monsoon season, which spans from June to November. However there are concerns that upstream dams and climate change which is causing less rain in the Mekong region are affecting the water levels of Tonle Sap. This, in turn, may be having an impact on the wildlife which frequent its waters, both below and above surface.
Tonle Sap is certainly a year-round destination. However, if you want a better chance of seeing Tonle Sap Lake and its floating villages in all their glory, perhaps consider taking your Siem Reap floating village tour during the rainy season. During this time, the mangrove forests should be submerged and the stilted huts surrounded by water.
How deep is Tonle Sap?
During the monsoon season when the waters are highest due to the change in direction of flow (because of the pressure of the water in the Mekong forcing it back into the lake), Tonle Sap can reach a depth of up to 10 metres. However, water levels dwindle as the flow of water changes direction back towards the Mekong, with the depth becoming noticeably shallower in the dry season.
Are there crocodiles in Tonle Sap lake?
Tonle Sap Lake is home to crocodile farms which, in all honesty, was one aspect of my Tonle Sap floating village tour I didn’t like and steered clear of by staying on the boat whilst others looked. The lake does have a population of Siamese Crocodiles however, sadly, they are becoming endangered because they are of high commercial value. Along with crocs, Tonle Sap Lake is home to at least 11 species of aquatic and semi-aquatic water snakes.
So, is Tonle Sap worth visiting?
Absolutely, yes. A Tonle Sap floating village day tour from Siem Reap is one of the best things to do in the region. The trip I went on was a tour of Tonle Sap Lake and a stop at the floating village of Kompong Phluk (although it wasn’t floating when I visited, and was pretty high and dry, but we passed many other stilted huts which were submerged in water).
Tip: Do be mindful that itineraries for day tours to Tonle Sap might vary from the one I will discuss here, so check yours.
All about the day trip…
Our tour operator collected us from our Siem Reap hotel, for the short but eye opening drive to where the boat was docked. The journey was a great opportunity to see a snippet of Cambodian life outside of Siem Reap, which you otherwise may not. After boarding a rather questionable wooden boat on a tributary of Tonle Sap Lake, we set off towards the floating villages.
Cruising past colourful and wonky stilted homes and even temples whilst the Southeast Asian sun glistened on the lake was a unique experience I will never forget. Life is far-removed from anything I’d ever experienced, and the remoteness and seclusion of what life must be like living above the water was thought-provoking in itself.
When our tour arrived at Kompong Phluk floating village, we had the opportunity to disembark and wander the village. The water levels were low so this afforded the opportunity to walk beneath the wooden structures which towered high above. We met locals and children, and even visited a school for a short while, where there were animals roaming free. It was easy to forget for a moment that when water levels are at their highest, wandering along the orange sandy sediment wouldn’t be an option.
After, we boarded the boat and headed to the mangrove forests. There was an obligatory stop at the crocodile farm, which was my least favourite bit of the whole day. Here, we had the option to stay on the boat, or board a smaller local boat who would row you around the mangroves for an extra fee. I chose to stay on the boat and steer clear of the crocodile farm, because I could see the mangroves perfectly from where I was sitting and marvelling at a crocodile farm is not something I (personally) agreed with.
The final part of the day was spent away from the floating villages and on the main body of Tonle Sap where we watched the sunset, with no stilted hut in sight. Along with the vibrant lopsidedness of the stilted huts and seeing another side to Cambodian life, this moment was one of the highlights of the whole day.
Water surrounded as far as the eye could see, almost making it feel like we were bobbing somewhere in the middle of the ocean. A local lady rowed by in her boat selling refreshments, and we grabbed a cold can of beer from her to enjoy the view with. After the sun sank into the horizon, we headed back to dry land and one of the most magical but frightening of things happened – it began to thunder and lightning in an aggressive way like I had never experienced.
Safely back to shore and on board the bus, our tour operator dropped us back at our hotel in Siem Reap (and the storm continued all the way back, literally illuminating the whole sky) which concluded our Tonle Sap floating villages day trip. This day was one of the most memorable out of my trip to Siem Reap, and if you’re looking for something to do that’s not a temple, I’d highly recommend you consider this!
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