Discover the secrets of the Siem Reap Floating Village, a hidden gem nestled amidst the tranquil waters of Tonle Sap Lake. Experience a unique glimpse into Cambodian life, where traditions and simplicity intertwine. One of the most extraordinary places I have visited private Angkor guide, Mr.Rain, in Cambodia, easily accessible from Siem Reap, is Tonle Sap Lake and its floating villages. It is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and home to more than 1,350,000 people living in and around its ever-changing shores (including some of Cambodia’s poorest people). The population of this region is dependent on the lake’s rich natural resources and is responsible for the vital supply of the nation’s fish. The Tonle Sap is a vast lake with a double life, as she dramatically changes in character with the change of the seasons.
When the monsoon arrives in May or June, a natural phenomenon occurs the pressure of the flooding Mekong forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse its flow, causing the lake to swell fivefold. The lake takes on a whole new shape as it fills, stretching to a staggering 250 km long and 100 km wide, taking on the appearance of an inland sea. The water level rises from a shallow depth of 1m in the dry season to 10m in the monsoon, bringing with it a bounty of migratory fish and wildlife and an essential source of food and income for the whole region. Its inhabitants are incredibly adaptable to this ebb and flow, and as the lake fills, daily life at the floating villages becomes vibrantly active. I have been on various trips to these unique floating communities and continue to remain in awe of the remarkable aquatic world they live in and their ability to adapt to the changing seasons.
Life on the Water
The Homes: The homes on the water vary depending on how far from the shore they are located. I am always both humbled and impressed by the ingenuity of their design and construction. Traveling by boat, you will see the swamped channels out to the lake, flanked by rows of traditional stilted houses. These elevated homes are built on 10-meter-high wooden stilts, designed to protect them against the rising waters in the monsoon months.
If you are traveling in the dry months between November and April, the water level will have dropped dramatically, exposing a forest of these stilts and the lengthy ladders that are now required to access the homes precariously perched on top of them. Many boats lie idle on the banks of the now shallow channels; this is a time of year for home maintenance and repairs to fishing equipment and boats. People are now able to store their belongings underneath their homes and often use the space as a shop. These villages will now have walkable dirt roads and paths that were once flooded. You will often see shrimp or fish drying on huge sheets in the sun and children happily playing games as everyone takes advantage of the dry weather.
Once out on the water, you will find a very different scene: clusters of buoyant homes, some strewn together with rafts or built on pontoons, many decorated with colorful flowers, and some with floating gardens. These nomadic homes can be towed to other areas of the lake to find better fishing grounds, as they will move towards the middle of the lake when the waters recede and the surrounding flooded forests begin to dry up.
- Transportation: As the area is flooded for half of the year, the primary mode of transport is the boat. They come in all forms, but the most common are long, narrow wooden boats, usually powered by a small engine and used for fishing and transporting goods. The locals also use canoes, bamboo rafts, and even barrels. Children go to school by boat, vendors sell their wares from boats—literally, nothing can happen without a boat! Tourist groups travel on larger vessels, but smaller private tours often use traditional boats and canoes, allowing visitors to explore the mangroves and floating forests and take a closer look at village life.
- Livelihood: The people who live on the Tonle Sap are dependent on fishing and fish farming, as they supply the majority of the country’s markets and export demands. They rely heavily on catching fish and shrimp using handcrafted woven nets and bamboo traps. I have often seen women collecting water spinach and water hyacinth (which they will use for weaving) or growing their own vegetables and herbs in their floating gardens. Crocodile farming is also common, but fishing is the primary source of livelihood for the entire population of the lake. When the water recedes, many will take to farming on the land and work in the paddy fields, which will now swallow up the lake’s overflow from the heavy rains.
The Ecosystem of the Tonle Sap
Tonle Sap Lake is a unique ecosystem with a wealth of diverse aquatic life. It is an important breeding ground for over 300 species of fish and endangered species of water birds, reptiles, snakes, and mammals. When flooded annually, it is known for having the largest freshwater swamp forest habitat in Southeast Asia. This vast area is now recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of major ecological significance. The reserve also has an abundance of vegetation, with over 200 plant species, many of which have adapted to survive the inundations. The flooded forests also remarkably act as a natural barrier gate, protecting villages from soil erosion and severe flooding during the monsoon season.
This precious ecosystem also faces many challenges. There are threats of overfishing and illegal fishing, deforestation, climate change bringing more floods and droughts, and, of course, pollution. There is also the severe effect of the extensive damming in the upper Mekong and its tributaries, threatening drought and resulting in a frightening decline in Tonle Sap flow. This not only endangers its forests and wildlife but also its essential fishing industry, which, importantly, supplies the majority of the nation’s protein.
With that said, there are many organizations working alongside UNESCO in efforts to save Tonle Sap Lake from these serious threats. Many conservation projects have been implemented; however, much more action is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of the lake and its population.
Visiting the Floating Villages
Although some of the facts above may paint a grim picture of the lake’s future, I still highly recommend a trip to see the workings of these wonderful villages and experience this “whole other world” living on the water in this extraordinary natural environment.
There are four main villages accessible from Siem Reap, each with its own characteristics and attractions. Here is a little information about each one:
· Chong Kneas
Located 16 km away, Chong Kneas is the closest village to Siem Reap. It is a popular and crowded village, also functioning as the terminal for boats traveling to Battambang and the capital, Phnom Penh. The residents of this village are mostly ethnic Vietnamese who migrated to Cambodia several generations ago. Here, there are both stilted houses and floating homes, which are moved around according to the water levels. Although it is not the most authentic of the villages, it does have some attractions for tourists, including a crocodile farm, a floating basketball court, and a school. Due to its proximity to Siem Reap, it can be worth a visit for those with little time and who wish to experience a little of life on the lake. It is also very close to Phnom Krom Hill, which houses a beautiful ancient temple at its summit, where you can enjoy the stunning panorama of the Siem Reap countryside reaching out to Tonle Sap Lake. This is a particularly good spot for witnessing the breathtaking sunset reflecting on the lake and the expansive wetlands below.
· Mechrey –
Approximately 25 km from Siem Reap and very different from Chong Kneas, Mechrey is a much more peaceful village set in nature. Surrounded by mangrove forests, it provides a perfect habitat for birds and animals, making it a good choice for nature lovers who want to see and learn about the wildlife. The village also has a floating market, a floating school, and a floating church. It is a good choice for those who wish to visit the natural environment of the lake and learn about traditional fishing methods and crafts.
· Kampong Phluk:
About 30 km from Siem Reap, you will find the village of Kampong Phluk, which is actually a cluster of three stilted villages located at the entrance to the lake where the Tonle Sap River flows into it. Kampong Phluk, known for its towering stilted houses, is a real working village where its residents rely on fishing (and farming when the waters recede), making it a perfect village for observing local industry and culture. It also has a flooded forest, making it a good place to visit if you wish to make a canoe trip through the submerged trees and vegetation.
· Kampong Khleang
Kampong Khleang, 55 km away, is the furthest and largest accessible village from Siem Reap. It is situated on the north shore of the lake and has an impressive 10,000+ inhabitants (apparently made up of ten villages), all living in hundreds of both stilted and floating houses. I love to visit friends here during the yearly water festival to enjoy the boat races and the party after with the locals, hosted in the beautifully ornate pagoda area. There is a giant golden statue of Buddha standing at the very edge of this area, facing outward, overseeing the whole of this sprawling village and its waterways. Glistening brightly in the sunlight, it is visible from quite a distance, which I always find very impressive and thought-provoking. Kampong Khleang is one of the more authentic, well-organized, and self-sufficient of the villages, with schools, markets, and temples. There is much more to explore here, with smaller waterways (once streets) running throughout the village and the opportunity to observe daily life first-hand. It is a great option if you wish to experience the reality of life on the lake.
These are the main floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake close to Siem Reap, each with its very own distinctive charm and appeal.
Visiting the villages can offer a deeply rewarding cultural and educational experience and a great way to support the local communities and conservation projects. As a visitor, it is a wonderful opportunity to talk with locals and observe their daily lives and traditions. However, visitors must be mindful of the ethnic and environmental issues that may be caused by tourism. So as not to cause harm, affect, or disrupt the communities, always be respectful and aware of local customs and etiquette. It is also advised to avoid giving money to children, as this is known to promote begging and can lead to their exploitation. Instead, why not donate to a local project or a known NGO that is there to work for the benefit and health of the lake environment and the residents of the villages? If traveling with a professional, registered guide, they will help you interact with the locals and inform you of any customs you must respect; otherwise, please give this some careful thought if visiting alone.
The inhabitants of the great Tonle Sap Lake are fiercely resilient and adaptable people, living for the most part in extremely poor and sometimes dangerous conditions. With a lack of washing facilities and sewage systems and often facing extreme weather, disease and accidents are common, especially among children and the elderly. Although there are some organizations working closely with communities and authorities to improve the situation, it is a daunting task due to the sheer size of the population living on the lake. They face an unknown future with the effects of climate change, pollution, foul weather, and a lack of basic resources. However, this resilience, coupled with their remarkable skills on the water, is a testament to their vital role in Cambodia; without this workforce, the nation would suffer greatly from the lack of fish, which is crucial to the Cambodian diet. It is imperative to preserve this wonderfully unique ecosystem and the people of the lake’s way of life and traditions.
It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to visit this fascinating natural environment and its population. They are the guardians and protectors of the great Tonle Sap Lake ecosystem and its fisheries; with some care taken, we hope to see it thrive long into the future.