If you’re travelling to Cambodia, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in Siem Reap. Its proximity to the temples of Angkor means millions of tourists flood into this town every year – but while Angkor might be Cambodia’s most famous site, and a symbol of national pride, no one site around Siem Reap is more treasured than Tonle Sap Lake.

Cambodia’s largest lake plays an essential role in providing food throughout the country, and its existence helped the Angkorian civilisation thrive for centuries. Today, around 80,000 people make their homes on this vast stretch of water, with vibrant communities spread over 170 fascinating floating villages.

However, while Tonle Sap’s emergence as a popular tourist destination has provided an important new source of revenue, this also means exploring can be an overwhelming or inauthentic experience. So, if you’re intrigued by the traditional local life here and would like to enjoy a more genuine view of Tonle Sap, here’s everything you need to know.

Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Lake

Aside from the floating villages themselves, there are a few reasons why Tonle Sap is such a unique body of water. First, the lake is located on the Mekong Delta, a vast network of rivers and islands that are surrounded by emerald rice paddies. The Mekong Delta is home to millions of fish, including the Mekong catfish, which is the world’s largest freshwater fish and can weigh up to a whopping 648 pounds.

May to October is the rainy season in Southeast Asia, and during this time, the Mekong River swells so significantly that the Tonle Sap River (which connects Tonle Sap Lake with the Mekong River) is forced to flow backwards and away from the sea – making it the only river in the world that ever flows both ways. When the flooding Mekong River flows into Tonle Sap, it becomes the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, covering an area of 6,200 square miles.

And, not only is the lake one of the most diverse fisheries in the world, providing 60% of Cambodia’s total protein intake, but it’s also home to some of the world’s rarest water birds. Over 150 species live here, including the spot-billed pelican, painted stork, black-headed ibis, and grey-headed fish-eagle. For these reasons, the lake is also popular with bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts.

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Floating villages

Floating villages

So, while Tonle Sap Lake is of huge social, cultural, and environmental significance, it’s the floating villages that pull in most tourists – and, if you’re in the area, exploring them is a must. Skimming across the surface of the lake, and passing by these floating houses while learning about the cultures and histories of these communities is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Here, locals take boats to work, and children go to a floating school. There are floating supermarkets, floating petrol stations and karaoke bars, and even floating basketball courts! In some of these larger communities, there are also floating hospitals. However, in some cases, the term ‘floating villages’ can be a little misleading – because there are two types of buildings on Tonle Sap Lake.

First, there are genuine floating villages – houses that are built on bobbing bamboo pontoon rafts, like Chong Khneas, which can be towed to a different location on the lake. This means locals can easily access the best supplies of fish based on seasonally rising or falling water levels. However, the other ‘floating villages’ aren’t technically floating at all.

Settlements like Kampong Phluk are built on very tall wooden stilts, and they occupy a fixed position, usually in the middle of the lake to make things easier for fishermen. In the rainy season, the stilts are covered by water, giving the illusion that the houses are floating – but in summer, the homes are often left high and dry, stranded amid lakeside mud.

While it’s undeniably fascinating, and often incredibly beautiful – particularly at sunset, when the sky is reflected on the rippling water – life on the lake is hard for locals. Fishermen spend whole weeks out fishing, travelling for days to reach the middle of the lake. Due to large waves, dangerous conditions, and limited food, the life expectancy of a Tonle Sap fisherman is only 54 years.

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Exploring the lake – which floating villages are worth visiting?

While the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting the lake has its perks, it also has its downsides – not least the gradual erosion of authentic local life. Another issue is predatory boatmen charging tourists rip-off prices. Chong Kheas, in particular, seems to have fallen foul of the tourist traps, with visitors reporting an increasingly theme-park-like atmosphere.

Happily, however, there are quieter villages that offer more authentic experiences – as well as decent tour companies that don’t exploit the locals. The villages of Kampong Phluk and Kampong Kleang will give you a more genuine glimpse into life on the lake – although if you really want to feel immersed in local life, head to Kampong Luong near Pursat, on the other side of the lake.

Kampong Phluk and Kampong Kleang

Kampong Phluk and Kampong Kleang

Kampong Phluk is a working village – actually made up of three villages – and locals mostly make their living fishing, although some also harvest crops during the dry season. As you cruise past people’s houses, you can spot locals making and repairing boats, dropping their children off at school, and maintaining their homes.

The flooded forest on the edge of Kampong Phluk is the largest and one of the most biodiverse on the lake, and the local women ferry tourists around these dense collections of gnarled mangroves. It’s shady and tranquil inside these flooded forests, and you can spot all kinds of birds and animals as you cruise through the trees, peering into the edge of a mysterious underwater world.

Around the edges of the flooded forest and Kampong Phluk village are floating restaurants, and if you’d like to support the local communities, you can stop and enjoy a traditional meal. The food is traditional Khmer cuisine, which is simple yet delicious and includes things like fragrant stews and stir-fries. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the locals’ favourite snack: grilled water snakes.

Kampong Khleang is the furthest village from Siem Reap, and as a result, it doesn’t have the same volume of tourists – so if you want an authentic, relaxed experience away from the crowds, it’s a good bet. The boat tours here are also owned and run by locals, which means your money is going towards the local community – and not lining greedy tour agents’ pockets.

Kampong Luong

Kampong Luong

On the other side of the lake, not too far from the city of Pursat, you’ll find Kampong Luong, another one of Tonle Sap’s most authentic floating villages. Like most of the communities on the lake, this village is made up of both Khmer and Vietnamese communities who have become blended.

Sadly, many of the ethnic Vietnamese who live here are considered illegal immigrants. While most of them were born in Cambodia, complications after the war meant they were denied citizenship – and because they were born in Cambodia, they don’t have Vietnamese papers either. So these families became stateless, and living on the water became a necessity.

Despite these difficulties, the locals of Kampong Luang welcome visitors with open arms – and if you’d like to immerse yourself in village life, you have the option of doing a homestay here. The locals themselves run the homestay initiative, so this is a great way to support the community, as well as get to know locals and get a glimpse of authentic, everyday life on the lake.

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How to visit Tonle Sap Lake responsibly

Exploring the hidden beauty of Tonle Sap should be an experience you’ll remember and cherish for years to come. The landscape is far more diverse than you might imagine, and depending on where you are on the lake, you can admire pristine rice paddies, rustic stilted houses, and atmospheric flooded forests.

Cruising past people’s homes as they’re going about their business can sometimes feel a bit invasive, so it’s really important to be respectful (for example, don’t take photos of locals without their permission). While some schools on the lake welcome visitors, it’s best to avoid these – and to try to avoid giving them cash donations, too, as these often don’t benefit the people you think they do.

If you want to support the communities here, the best way is to spend money in restaurants, souvenir shops, or information centres, as this money goes directly to the locals themselves or the wider community. Responsible travel here has big benefits, so it’s worth taking some time to research ethical, reputable companies that support local guides.

Have you been to Tonle Sap? Or are you interested in going? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!