The Tonle Sap plays an indispensable role in Cambodian life. An immense lake at the rough geographical center of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap is quite literally the beating heart of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The lake is home to nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population, who live in or around the waterway both in stilted villages along its banks and upon floating villages within the lake itself. In addition to sustaining a large human population, more than 200 species of fish and a variety of animal species, including many exotic birds, benefit from the protection of various biosphere reserves located around the Tonle Sap.
The Tonle Sap provides numerous opportunities for visitors to travel to one of the stilted or floating villages of Cambodia and experience the vibrant communities and diverse animals that inhabit the great Cambodian lake. Either via day trips to flooded forests and floating villages from Siem Reap, Kompong Chhnang, and Pursat or while traveling between Siem Reap and either Phnom Penh or Batdambang aboard a ferry or luxury riverboat, even a glimpse of a Cambodian floating village is an experience to remember.
Tonle Sap as the Beating Heart of Cambodian Life: The Tonle Sap Lake is connected to the Tonle Sap River, which meets the Basaac and Mekong Rivers at the chaktomuk or “four-faces” in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Each year the spring snowmelt in the Himalaya Mountains flows into the Mekong River and the surging water causes the Tonle Sap River to change its course, flowing backwards into the Tonle Sap Lake.
Gradually, the Tonle Sap Lake fills with this nutrient rich water and swells nearly fivefold: its waters rising from a dry season low of 3-6 feet to nearly 35 feet deep! As the waters of the lake continue to rise, Cambodian communities living in stilted villages such as Kompong Phluk move higher and higher up their uniquely designed homes to stay above the water line, while those living in floating homes, including Chong Kneas and Kompong Luong, simply relocate according to the seasonal ebb and flow.
The monsoon rains cause the lake to fill and spill over onto the surrounding flood plains, engulfing the forests and supporting a thriving underwater ecosystem, which is the mainstay of the local economy. As the heavy monsoon rain feeds even more water into the Tonle Sap the lake continues to swell until around November, when replete with water, the lake overpowers the Mekong and the water flows back towards Phnom Penh, into the Mekong and Basaac Rivers, and finally out to sea.
As this cycle is so vital to the livelihoods of many Cambodians, the nation celebrates the reversal of the river with a grand water festival, the Bonn Om Tuk, during which people from all over Cambodia converge in Phnom Penh for exciting boat races!
Visiting Communities on The Tonle Sap: The best opportunities for visitors to experience life on the Tonle Sap are via day trips, primarily from Siem Reap, which can include both the stilted and floating villages of Chong Kneas, Kompong Phluk and Mechrey villages, and the Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve.
Visitors to Pursat and Kompong Chhnang may also visit floating villages on those parts of the lake, particularly Kompong Luong, which is located near Pursat on the southern shore of the Tonle Sap. In addition to birding, these trips provide an opportunity to see the unique villages that are home to diverse populations of Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham ethnic groups.
Kompong Phluk: The floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phluk sit at the edge of Tonle Sap Lake near the mouth of the Roluos River, not far from the temple town of Roluos, eight miles southeast of Siem Reap.
There are several villages that make up this fishing community of around 3,000, who relocate their homes seasonally as the water levels of the lake alternatively swell and recede with the annual monsoon. A number of villagers live in stilted houses near the coast, while others live in floating houses, some of which have in-board motors.
In the dry season there is an island with a temple, school, market area, and areas for drying and smoking the daily catch. During the dry winter months, when the waters of the lake are lowest, temporary thatched bamboo and wood buildings are constructed on the banks and it is possible to walk under the stilted houses.
When the rains come, the waters of Tonle Sap rise, flooding the entire village. While the floating houses and shops can move closer to or farther from shore as the lake alternatively swells and recedes, the stilted houses allow the villagers to stay in place while the lake rises upwards of 30 feet. As the water rises, the villagers move their houses up successive levels of the stilts in order to stay above the high water line.
During the wet season, the boats come out and everyone gets around by paddling from house to house, to market, or even to restaurants, churches, and wedding platforms. Vast mangrove forests surround the entire village, offering incredibly scenic locations for boat excursions along the flooded tree line.
As one of the most convenient locations from Siem Reap, Kompong Phluk is a great experience for most visitors, even if tourism has become nearly as important as traditional forms of income.
Chong Kneas: Chong Kneas is a large stilted and floating village along the edge of the Tonle Sap where boats from Batdambang and Phnom Penh dock following the voyage across the lake to Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. While Chong Kneas is the most convenient Tonle Sap community to visit from Siem Reap, it is also the most heavily visited by tourists and thus the least ‘authentic’ of the villages on the lake.
Chong Kneas is home to around 6,000 Khmer, Cham and Vietnamese, who live in either houseboats or wood and bamboo stilted homes. Due to dramatic variations in the lake’s water levels over the seasons, the floating homes are moved regularly to new moorings and the living quarters on some of the stilted homes are relocated up successive levels to stay above the high water mark.
Almost all the villagers live by fishing, and all village life happens on the water. The lively market, police station, two schools, fish and crocodile farms, the fishermen’s temple, and a Catholic church are all only accessible by boat. An environmental sustainability project called the GECKO Environmental Education Centre allows visitors to learn about the communities and ecology of the lake and helps the local population deal with infrastructure problems such as sewage, refuse, and lack of clean drinking water. GECKO has a floating office within the village, which you are more likely to visit if your trip is arranged directly with the organization.
Mechrey Village: Mechrey Village, which is located just 6km from the Prek Toal Biosphere in the northwest ‘corner’ of the lake, offers visitors the opportunity to explore land-based villages upon ox or buffalo drawn carts and floating villages and flooded forests in small boats. Mechrey is one of the newest Tonle Sap communities to open itself up to tourism and the experience for visitors is likely to be more authentic and less crowded than visits to the established and more popular sites, such as Chong Kneas and Kompong Phluk.
Kompong Luong Floating Village: Kompong Luong is a fascinating floating village that is almost entirely self-sustaining. There is everything from markets to schools and ice factories there, all kept afloat and ferried around the community by busy fleets of long tail boats. One of the most charming ‘buildings’ in the village is a wonderful floating Christian church built by Japanese missionaries.
Kompong Luong is located on the southern shore of Tonle Sap, just outside the charming town of Pursat; since its off the beaten track tourists visit infrequently, which is a shame because the area is a marvel and the locals could do with some tourist dollars.
Prek Toal Biosphere: Prek Toal Biosphere is one of the three designated protected biosphere reserves on the Tonle Sap Lake. Situated in the northwest corner of the lake, between Siem Reap and Batdambang, Prek Toal is the easiest protected area to visit and is particularly popular with those who love birds.
The establishment of the Prek Toal bird sanctuary has added a wonderful dimension to a floating village visit, even for those who aren’t ornithologists or amateur birders. A wide variety of rare birds, including storks, pelicans, ibises, cormorants, and darters gather in a relatively small area, especially during the dry season months (December to April), when visitors are practically guaranteed to see something special. Other species inhabiting the coastal region of the preserve include otters, slow Loris, and flying fox.
A permit from the World Conservation Society (WCS) is required to visit Prek Toal, though it is easily arranged through a local birding or ecotourism outfit in Siem Reap. Other tour operators will offer to take you into Prek Toal (without permission), but it is best to visit with organizations such as the Sam Veasna Center or Osmose, both of which have knowledgeable birding guides and connections with the WCS and local villagers. Visiting the area with the proper permission ensures that your visit doesn’t adversely impact either the environment or the community and it is possible to combine a birding trip with a home-stay opportunity in the floating village!
Want to know more about Stilted and Floating Villages in Cambodia? Check out our Video of Kompong Phluk Floating Village and our Photo Gallery of Floating Village life in Kompong Phluk, Cambodia, which were taken in the dry season months.
Best Time to Visit Kompong Phluk: Both the rainy and dry seasons have their own unique qualities, but the rainy season from June to October is when the villages are most scenic.
Best Time to Visit Chong Kneas: Both the rainy and dry seasons have their own unique qualities, but the rainy season from June to October is when the villages are most scenic.
Best Time to Visit Mechrey Village: Both the rainy and dry seasons have their own unique qualities, but the rainy season from June to October is when the villages are most scenic.
Best Time to Visit Kompong Luong: Kompong Luong Floating Village is best visited during the dry season months (November-May) when road conditions are best.
Best Time to Visit Prek Toal: Prek Toal Biosphere is best visited early in the morning (followed by an overnight stay if possible), particularly during the winter, dry season (December to April) when there are the greatest number of birds in the sanctuary.