Tonle Sap Lake which is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia is located about 17 kilometres South of Siem Reap. The lake is an abundant fishing pond with muddy brown waters. It is also regarded as the home of crocodile farms, mangrove trees, and farms an assortment of fish that serves as food for half of the Cambodian population. However, the biggest of all the attractions for tourists is that it inhabits communities of floating villages that comprises of boat houses constructed on stilts which s as high as 10 meters!
These Tonle Sap Lake Floating Villages have become a tourist attraction for visitors coming into Siem Reap. One thing that is so fascinating about people living in floating houses is that they attend floating schools, eat in floating restaurants; a lifestyle that has always drawn the attention of tourists to Cambodia.
The draining of the water meadow helps in regulating the flow into the Mekong Delta during the dry season. During the raining seasons, the entire area is submerged while the dwellers live close to the coast during the dry season. You can explore the channels during the raining season or the streets during the dry season, of this unique town. Another thing about this incredible town is that the houses float during the wet season as water circles at the verandas, while in the dry season; tall stilts are exposed, portraying the buildings like wooden skyscrapers.
Tonle Sap water level fluctuates significantly at different parts of the year with the lake being at its most attractive and beautiful between October and January when it is baptized with heavy summer showers. The water level would have drastically reduced by February and March resulting in the murky banks exposing the lake bed. By April, most of the outer portions of the lake are dry meaning that there is nothing like floating about the villages again all that is seen are towering buildings on the dry land. You will also be opportune to look at the farmers work the lakebed which can only happen during the dry season. By May to September, it is another rainy season, and the lake will fill up again. Spectacular! Isn't it?
One spectacular thing about Tonle Sap Lake is that it changes directions twice in a year. Fed by the Mekong River (floating market post here), during summer's wet season, the river can expand 20 km beyond its usual dimension and close to 2-10m deep. The reverse is the case during the dry season, with the stilts making the houses look like lofty cranes soaring overhead.
Something I love most about traveling to these floating villages is the opportunity to see off-the-beaten trackways of life of people living in that region. I've never seen anything like this after the floating markets of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The idea of living on a riverboat house is captivating but, living in a community, where everything is done on the water another wonderful experience altogether!
Dwellers in these floating village communities make a living off what the lake offers, e.g., fishing, shrimp farming, boat making, and crocodile farms and so on. They wash, bathe, swim and fish for dinner inside the river. It's a fully-functioning community with waterlogged streets, boats replacing cars, floating schools, markets, hospital clinics, a generator for electricity. What an unusual environment! I hear there's even a floating police station. Amazing!
There are different categories of people living on the Tonle Sap Lake. The lake has four important communities that can be accessed from Siem Reap and some ways to reach the place. Those villages are Chong Kneas, Kampong Phluk, Mechrey, and Kampong Khleang. Each of these villages is explained below;
Kampong Phluk, which means "harbour of the tusks," is a combination of 3 villages with mainly wooden houses that line the principal entrance to the Tonle Sap Lake from this region. Kampong Phluk just over 30km from Siem Reap and can be easily managed in half day trip. The communal sustain themselves majorly on fishing and shrimping, but they also harvest some land crops during the dry season.
The closest village that can be accessed within 16 km proximity of Siem Reap is Chong Kneas. The village comprises of stilted buildings as well as floating houses that are always moved around according to the water levels. The village also serves a boat terminal for Battambang and Phnom Penh. Chong Kneas is mainly designed to serve Korean tourists because of a considerable number of Korean restaurants in the village. At the same time, it is a usual place for rice scams. The boat expeditions are not owned by the local community and any of the vast amounts of tourist money coming in through them hardly reach the people living here.
Kampong Kathleen which merely means the "harbour warehouse" is a permanent stilted village located about 50km southeast of Siem Reap. This village is the farthest of all of the villages from Siem Reap frequently visited on the Tonle Sap Lake. And as such it doesn't have the same population of visiting tourists which can be enticing if you want a more genuine experience and a more relaxed speed.
Kampong Khleang has both stilted and floating buildings, as well as many other structures to sustain this vast community of closely 6,000 people. The floating houses are shifted based on the water levels of the Tonle Sap Lake. During the dry season, the homes are more or less on the lake's edge.
The mechrey floating village is situated 25 kilometres southwest of Siem Reap which is about halfway to Prek Toal; also a floating village and the entry point into the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve. Mechrey's community survives fishing, and more recently, the development of eco-tours.
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On a final note, desist from visiting any of the schools because they used to solicit for money to buy textbooks and food from tourists, but unfortunately the funds realized from such donations are hardly used for the purpose for which they were donated. The only way to support these communities in the Tonle Sap Lake region is to spend money at souvenir outlets, eateries or information centres. Another medium of help the villagers is by taking a paddle boat ride in the flooded forest; this is another source of local employment that profits the community from tourism.
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