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Cambodia’s Ethereal World of Floating Villages

Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake is unlike any other place on Earth.

Some of the houses are 30 feet high, painted bright blue, and perched on skeletal bamboo networks. Others are painted in green, red, and yellow hues, sitting right on the water’s surface as they bob on pontoons created from massive truck tires lashed together. Sun-bleached front porches wave flags of a day’s laundry, while chicken hutches are made from woven reeds, floating like everything else around them, thanks to a foundation of bike tires.

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This is the scene and the home of more than 100,000 Cambodians who live on the northern rim of the Tonle Sap Lake–located just west of dead-center in this small, Southeast Asian nation. At these Floating Villages, if you need to get somewhere, you will need a boat.

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The Tonle Sap, which translates to “Great Lake” in Cambodia’s Khmer language, is the largest freshwater body in all of Southeast Asia. At the southern end of the lake is the 75-mile Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake to the massive Mekong River, which flows all the way from China, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, before ending its course at the coastline of southern Vietnam.

Thanks to the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap is the only river that reverses course during the year. May brings the first downpours of monsoon season. When the Mekong levels rise, they force water back into the flood basin. The Tonle Sap River water then overflows and spills backward towards the lake. This annual influx of water creates currents that run in one direction in the dry season and the opposite in the wet season. The seasonal switch has made this area of Cambodia one of the most prolific, successful fisheries in the entire world.

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The Tonle Sap is also home to incredible biodiversity and wildlife. The critically endangered Bengal Florican and the White-shouldered Ibis both skim the waters here, as well as multiple snake species. The Giant Mekong Catfish below the lake’s surface can grow close to 700 pounds at nine feet in length.

The native Siamese Crocodile is also on the endangered species list in Asia. However, the communities of the Tonle Sap have obtained the rights to farm them off and on over the years. This has, unfortunately, helped to decimate the wild populations in favor of the money earned from selling the hides of bred crocodiles. Crocodile pens are adjacent to many of the houses, making a misstep a potentially deadly mistake.

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As for the human communities of these water villages, family trees can stretch back over a century. Generations continue to live and work at the water’s surface.

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Existence is both beautiful and brutal. The sun above Cambodia bakes the dirt and the water, each wearing a matching shade of tawny brown. In the dry season, portions of the lake are ankle-deep, while others dry up entirely. When the monsoons arrive in spring, the water rises dramatically, as do the floating homes. The Tonle Sap Lake, and the river basin surrounding it, can swell up to seven times in size during a heavy wet season.

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Fishermen head out at dawn with lines and nets. A good day’s catch is sold both at the local floating restaurants and in export. Life does carry some similarities to mainland living, including friendly pets and tidy, beautiful kitchens.

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The Tonle Sap carries the worries of all coastal communities around the world in the face of dire climate change. However, places like this village are feeling pains first and far harder. This is one of the world’s most endangered regions in terms of climate change.

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Vice reported from the area in 2018, when lower water levels caused a shorter season for the famous river reversal. If this continues–or the river reversal stops entirely–the effect on the families here will be catastrophic. It will mean a decimation of a once-thriving fishing industry and one of the world’s most unique communities.

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As with any responsible travel, make sure you’re using a reputable company that employs and fairly pays local people. Book your boat when you arrive at the village, not before, and put in a bit more travel time to either the picturesque village of Kampong Khleang or Kampong Phluk–one hour from Siem Reap.

For bird enthusiasts, the final village of Mechrey is a top choice. This floating community exists one hour west of Siem Reap, right on the edge of the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve. Peaceful, almost sleepy, it comes alive in late afternoons, as the sun starts to dip and the children escape the floating school rooms, venturing home on boats and splashing in the water with friends.

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Know Before You Go

The tourism industry has been growing over the last ten years in the region. If you’re visiting Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, it’s possible to visit the nearest floating village of Chong Kneas about 35 minutes by car.

Unfortunately, Chong Kneas’ proximity has made it an appealing, quick trip for those with tight schedules. The village is crowded in the high season, but this has done more harm than good due to the lack of tourism infrastructure. One of the biggest problems is that people book tours in Siem Reap, with operators out of that city. Very little of that booking money then stays in the village.

Finally, Cambodian culture favors modesty. Swap your tank tops for shirts with sleeves and your cutoffs for flowy pants or a dress before visiting any rural community.

kengallaher2240 July 19, 2022

I have been there - it is very interesting.  However not all is good.  Where does the sewage go? Into the water.Where does drinking water come from?  Better not be from the lake if you don't want to get very ill.  So water comes from vendors who often charge too much.