Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Tonle Sap Floating Church

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 1 hour via dirt road and will be a very dusty and bumpy ride to this famous floating village.

The local homes along the main dirt road

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 Tonlé Sap river, which connects the lake with the Mekong river, reverses its flow. 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.

Tonle Sap village homes

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.


A common home seen

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 on 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. The rely solely on the lake for their food and just about everything else.

Tonle Sap 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.

Boat journey out to the floating village

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

Tourist long boats

Floating church at Tonle Sap 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 boat houses and so on.

Tonle Sap Floating local restaurant

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.

Locals rowing

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 worst is the colour of the river and lake water. You start to wonder how these people live here in these conditions.

Tonle Sap floating village

The Lao people of Tonle Sap live in 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 boat house on an area about 2 feet wide. Using charcoal or wood fire stoves, they go about making meals for the family o even for business. I saw a lady cooking something which used chicken and she simply threw the chicken intestines into the lake. But then again, it sounds irty but I guess it is part of the eco system here where the fish would eat what ever is discarded into 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 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 entusiasm, some tourist hand over a dollar or two to these poor children.

Floating tourist stop

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 2 places just near by each other. The boatman will stop you there where you get off and he will wait for you.

Most tourist would just get off, order some drinks and browse the souvenir shop. Well, we did that. 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 pit at tourist stop

At this stop, there was even a crocodile pit! No kidding. A live crocodile for tourist to gawk at. They were freshwater crocodiles and they didn't look to happy. Averaging about 4-6 feet in length too.

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 Carousel at Tonle Sap Lake

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 main land. 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.

Floating school

Floating Basketball Court!

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, Cambodia. 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?

Locals cooking a meal on their home

End of the day, this entire experience took us a good half day here and 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.

To get here, just ask your hotel or tuk tuk guide and an average time of half a day.

Price for 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.

You can also read mt 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 to this level until I visited the Tonle Sap Lake in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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