Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
The Floating Villages of Tonle Sap
The heart of Cambodia, the giant freshwater lake named Tonle Sap hosts a number of small floating villages. Adapting completely to the nature of the environment they live in, locals spend most of their lives floating on the water. This water is their primary source of life and food in their homes. Fascination with this lifestyle attracts tourists from around the world to Cambodia, in order to witness life on the Tonle Sap.
Archaeological findings testify to the existence of pile-dwelling settlements dating back to the prehistoric era. Back then, people would settle close to the life-giving waters, rather than form a system that allowed the flow of water to their homes on land. However, the ever-changing waters of the Tonle Sap River flow to the lake during the rainy season, thanks to the mighty Mekong, and when the dry season arrives, the flow is reversed, back into the Mekong again. This remarkable natural phenomenon that constantly changes the water levels is not a hurdle to the locals, as they have built convenient structures to counter these changes.
The small communities living on the lake represent a combination of movable houses and permanent structures. The movable houses comprise the floating villages, and they can be relocated when the water levels rise. The stilted villages, on the other hand, are constructed as permanent structures. The tall, thin stilts that hold the house high enough, to keep the household dry during the wet season. The exceptionally long ladders are made to reach the water when the level is low.
The exact number of people living on and around the Tonle Sap Lake is unknown. Considered settlers without legal status, they are made up of three ethnic groups: Vietnamese, Cham, and Khmer. They are the “forgotten people” or people without a homeland. Divided into several communities, these people have formed around a hundred small villages floating on the Tonle Sap. Among the largest and the most visited, there are three villages which offer an interesting insight into life on Asia’s largest freshwater lake:
- Kampong Chhnang
- Koh Chen
- Prek Toal
Approximately 90-95 kilometers north of Phnom Penh is Kampong Chhnang, a fishing town on the Tonle Sap. Also known as the ‘Port of Pottery’, Kampong Chhnang is renowned for its ancient traditional method of low-fired pottery wares – used throughout all of rural Cambodia. On the Aqua Mekong, we visit this riverside village to learn more about the life and work of the ceramic-making communities, dating back to the 6th century.
Recognizable by the big Buddha statue sitting peacefully on the river banks of the Mekong, and the yellow tiles of a temple built in Khmer style, Koh Chen is located 35 kilometers from Phnom Penh. We visit their silversmith villages, known for their fine craftsmanship. The intricate craft of silversmithing has been preserved by the local artisans for over 50 years. Keep an eye out for their famous silver bowls, regularly chosen by Cambodia’s king as gifts for visiting dignitaries.
Having unique and magnificent biodiversity many nature-lovers visit the Tonle Sap lake and its villages for the chance to spot some of the diverse wildlife. Although small, Prek Toal is a village commonly visited by tourists interested in birds spotting. As being an important habitat for many endangered bird species, a visit to Prek Toal is a perfect chance for an exciting birdwatching tour.
As a guest on the Aqua Mekong, we set off by skiff into the 22,000-hectare Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve, one of the largest freshwater bodies in Asia and one of the last places of refuge in Southeast Asia for large water birds the spot-billed pelicans, milky stork, black-headed ibis and the elusive masked finfoot.
Aqua Expeditions partners with Room to Read
Four years ago, Aqua Expeditions began a long-term partnership with the internationally renowned, non-profit educational leader, Room to Read. Our guests are an important catalyst for donations to Room to Read and in 2018, we were able to raise over $10,000 to fund a library at a local primary school, in Vinh Dai, Vietnam, providing a safe, child-friendly space where children can focus on learning.
Aqua Expeditions’ philanthropic donations go toward the Girls’ Education Program in Cambodia, aimed at helping girls in low-income communities to complete high school with skills to make key life decisions. To date, more than 500 girls in Cambodia have graduated from secondary school thanks to this important program. Learn more here.