Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Photo of Tonle Sap Lake

The Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997.

To travel to this lake, one needs to hire a taxi or tuk-tuk from Siem Reap town and the journey takes about one hour via a dirt road.

This incredible experience is not for the faint-hearted where it will be a very dusty and a bumpy ride to this famous floating village which attracts many tourists.

Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Poor People
The poor people that live along the main road to Tonle Sap Lake
Apparently, for most of the year, the Tonle Sap lake is fairly small, around one meter deep and with an area of 2,700 square km.

During the monsoon season, however, the Tonle Sap river, which connects the lake with the Mekong river, reverses its flow.

When this happens, water is pushed up from the Mekong into the lake, increasing its area to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine meters, flooding nearby fields and forests.

Village at Tonle Sap Lake
The local village just before Tonle Sap Lake
Our trip began in the morning with a tuk-tuk ride out of Siem Reap town watching the Cambodian lifestyle as we pass small villages and homes.

Eventually, our journey from a tar road becomes a dirt road. If you have not experienced bumpy, this is the place to do it. Oh, don't forget to bring along a scarf to cover up as the dust from the dirt road will get to you.


Poverty at Tonle Sap Lake
One of the local homes near the lake
Life at Tonle Sap Lake

I must warn you before you continue reading. This experience to Tonle Sap will either make you feel sad or you will just be amazed at how people live in the real world.

To me, this must have been one of the saddest trips I have taken in my life. Even seeing the poor in Indonesia did not compare to the poverty I saw here. Poor people were just everywhere.

People literally living in huts the size of your home toilet. Just take a look at the picture above (You can click on the picture for a larger picture).

It is actually someones home. On asking the guide, he relates that this is actually normal. Sometimes up to 8 people can live in a hut like that.

Showers are taken just at the side of the hut and cooking on the other side. I even saw someone taking a bath just next to the road on my journey to the lake.

On how people live here, it is simply amazing. They rely solely on the lake for their food and just about everything else.

Boat Jetty at Tonle Sap Lake
The common local boat jetty
Anyway, we reached the jetty where we would change from tuk-tuk to a long tail boat. There are hundreds of these boats there so the guide will take you to their regular boatman.

We board the boat and head out the river to see more of the Cambodian life by the river. The price is about US$10.00 per person for this trip.

This is the main transportation way for locals and also tourists. You will see boatloads of tourists moving up and down as Tonle Sap is quite the popular tourist destination in Cambodia.

Boat journey out to the floating village

Longboats at Tonle Sap Lake
A typical tourist longboat
Floating Church Photo
A unique floating church at the lake
Cruising along the river, you will be shocked to see that life revolves around the river and everything, I mean everything is on the river.

From schools on boats to churches on boats, the scenery is filled with all kinds of boat houses and so on.

Floating Restaurant at Tonle Sap
One of the local floating restaurants seen
Even local floating eateries are seen. Kids on boats and locals paddling around are a common sight along the way out.

There are a few thousand people living in this huge water village on Tonle Sap where fishing is the main income for these locals.

When you reach the end of the river which connects to the lake, you start to see more and more of these floating villages.

They are practically everywhere and what makes things worse is the color of the river and lake water. You start to wonder how these people live here in these conditions.

Floating Village Tonle Sap
The floating village of Tonle Sap
The Lao people of Tonle Sap live in extremely poor conditions as there is no luxury here. Everything revolves around the lake and rivers here.

On occasions, I saw the locals just cooking outside their boathouse on an area about two feet wide. Using charcoal or wood fire stoves, they go about making meals for the family or even for their business.

I saw a lady cooking something which used chicken and she simply threw the chicken intestines into the lake, and mind you this is common here.

But then again, it sounds dirty but I guess it is part of the ecosystem here where the fish would eat whatever is discarded into the lake.

Floating Houses at Tonle Sap Lake
A common floating home at the lake
Some homes are even far out from the main village and stand alone in the waters as you pass with your boat.

One of the main pictures that did not turn up nicely is how the children and adults sit in basin or bucket type boats.

More like a plastic round tub, you are bound to see them solo paddling around and occasionally coming up to the tourist stops and asking for money.

Seeing how they are dressed and full of enthusiasm, some tourist hand over a dollar or two to these poor children.

Tonle Sap Lake Tourists
One of the floating tourists stops at Tonle Sap Lake
Finally, after a remembering boat ride, you are brought to one of 2 floating tourist stops which double as a restaurant and souvenir shop.

All tourists are brought to these two places just nearby each other. The boatman will stop you there where you get off and he will wait for you.

Most tourists would just get off, order some drinks and browse the souvenir shop. Well, we did just that.

I ordered a nice cold can of Cambodian Coke and used the toilet here. Souvenirs were sky high priced so we gave it a miss.

Crocodile at Tonle Sap
Crocodile attraction at Tonle Sap Lake
At this stop, there was even a crocodile pit as the main tourist attraction and it looked pretty scary from up above.

I am not kidding, there were live crocodiles for tourists to gawk at. They were freshwater crocodiles and they didn't look too happy, and each of them averaging about 4 to 6 feet in length too.

Floating shop Tonle SapThe local grocer boat shop

While taking a break and enjoying the Coke, a boat pulled up by the side and the locals who worked at this floating restaurant quickly flocked to the boat.

Knowing me, I had to go and see what it was all about. It was the local grocer cum fruit boat. Selling to locals, he had jars of pickles and fresh fruit inside the boat.

Floating theme park
A floating carousal which totally blew my mind

So the 20 minute stop over there came to an end as there was nothing else to do on this floating tourist stop and we called our boatman.

We picked us up and headed back to the mainland. Along the way back, he took another route back and this time, we saw something out of the world.

A floating carousel! Now, how on earth is this. Words just could not come out of my mouth when I saw it. Simply amazing what people can do at a floating village.

Tonle Sap Floating School
A floating school spotted during the boat rider
Basketball court that floats
A floating basketball court at the lake
Back into the river, we saw a floating school with a floating basketball court! It just goes to show that anything can float in Tonle Sap which is pretty amazing.

Sadly I did not see any school children as it was a weekend when I visited this place. I am assuming they have a school boat instead of a school bus?

Floating home at Tonle Sap
Locals cooking on their floating home
At the end of the day, this entire experience took us a good half day spent mainly at the floating village. I would again advise, if you have a soft spot for poverty, please take a pass on this trip.

It is very sad to know how good a life we have when these poor people are happily living things as they are in Tonle Sap.

How To Go To Tonle Sap Lake? 

To get here, just ask your hotel or tuk-tuk guide about tours to Tonle Sap as everyone in the tourist industry in Siem Reap will provide this service.

You can try to go on your own, but it is too long a journey by bike. It is recommended to use a licensed English speaking tour guide for this journey.

The price for a boat ride is US$12 to US$15 per person.

Journey to Tonle Sap - Well, I booked the guide for the entire day for $10.00 and he took us anywhere so you have to ask your guide or tuk-tuk driver.

How Long To Spend At Tonle Sap Lake?

On average, a visit to this lake can easily take you half a day, hence you should leave in the morning, and be back in Siem Reap after lunch.

It would not make sense to spend a full day here unless you are doing some volunteer or charity work. Most visitors are day trippers, who come here to see the unique way of life.

Siem Reap Tonle Sap Lake

Final Thoughts on Tonle Sap Lake

You can also read my other article on Angkor Wat, Siem Reap. Overall my journey to this amazing place was quite educational and emotional.

I never thought I would see poverty at this level until I visited the Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Again, this place is not for the faint-hearted, and an experience of a lifetime. 
Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia Reviewed by Malaysia Asia on Saturday, July 25, 2009 Rating: 5

9 comments:

tiffanyk. said...

It's so cool that you get to travel and see so much.

Cath J said...

Oh wowww.... everything is floating!! and water are yellow... T_T

Smell??? auchhhhh.....

Stanley said...

I'm amazed at how everything is floating. The most surprising one for me is the floating carousel. On the other hand I have to agree about the houses. I can't imagine what its like to live in such a small area with so many people.

David Jr said...

Tiffany, you will too one day! Just start saving now :)

Cath, the water is like Tea with Milk but it was not as smelly as I thought it would be.

Stanley, such is life here but then it is a total eye opener for me. The carousel was really odd if you ask me.

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eDmUNdLOu said...

be careful of touts. on slum days, boat operators will scream out a fee of USD20-30 per head. say no, and bargain. USD10-15 is reasonable. bare in mind that the tour guide in the boat is subject to additional cost. this includes the boat driver as well. a reasonable tip to both of them is a must or they will be talking their way to it. i paid USD15 for both of them the last time and felt really cheated. i'd reckon that USD10 for both would be sufficient. plus side of it is that the guides were good in speaking and entertainment.

just some food for thought.

crazy sexy fun traveler said...

Reading this post we should actually be happy we have a place to stay over and it's much bigger than those little 'houses' on the photos. A friend of mine is going to Cambodia in January so i will recommend him to visit the floating village, too ;)

Pearson Airport Taxi said...

The most surprising one for me is the floating carousel. On the other hand I have to agree about the houses. I can't imagine what its like to live in such a small area with so many people.

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