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Cambodia’s Great Tonle Sab Lake

Cambodia’s Great Tonle Sab Lake

Tonle Sap Lake sits only 15 km south of town, a unique eco-system and cultural area offering the opportunity to see a different side of the Siem Reap floating villages, cultural and nature tours, bird watching… Basic boat tours can be arranged at the Chong Khneas boat dock but we recommend arranging your tour through a reputable tour operator in Siem Reap.

The Tonle Sap Lake is the most prominent feature on the map of Cambodia – a huge dumbbell-shaped body of water stretching across the northwest of the country. In the wet season, the lake is one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Asia, swelling to an expansive 12,000 km2. During the dry half of the year it shrinks to as small as 2500 km2, draining into the Tonle Sap River which meanders southeast, eventually merging with the Mekong River at the ‘Chaktomuk’ confluence Phnom Penh. During the wet season a unique hydrologic phenomenon causes the Tonle River to reverse direction, filling the lake. The engine of this phenomenon is the Mekong River, which becomes bloated with snow melt and runoff from the monsoon rains. The swollen Mekong backs up into the Tonto Sap at the point where the rivers meet at Chaktomuk, forcing the waters of the Tonle Sap River back into the lake. The inflow expands the area of lake more than five-fold, inundating the surrounding forested floodplain and supporting an extraordinarily rich and diverse eco-system. More than 100 varieties of water birds including several threatened and endangered species, over 200 species of fish, as well as crocodiles, turtles, macaques, otter and other wildlife inhabit the inundated mangrove forests. The Lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive – floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.

Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary The Sanctuary

Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary The Sanctuary

Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary The Sanctuary

Prek Toal core area of the Biosphere Reserve has been called “the single most important breeding ground in Southeast Asia for globally threatened large water birds.”  The Biosphere covers 31,282 hectares at the northwest tip of the Lake and plays host to species including Greater and Lesser Adjuncts, Black-headed Ibis, Painted Stork, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican, Grey-Headed Fish Eagle and many more species Of the three Biosphere core areas on the Tonle Sap Lake, Prek Toal is the most accessible from Siem Reap and the most popular with birdwatchers. The best time of year for viewing is the dry season (December-May) when flocks of migratory birds congregate at Prek Toal. As the dry season progresses and the water recedes, the number of bird increases but the travel to some of the more important viewing areas becomes more difficult. Arrange a trip to Prek Toal through your guesthouse or a tour operator. To do it yourself, take a motor or taxi from Siam Reap to the Chong Khneas boat dock. Arrange a boat to the Prek Toal Environmental Research Station (Starting at $60 return.) a $20 entrance fee and S30 for a guided boat tour of the Sanctuary. The Research Station has information on the area’s flora and fauna. There are also bask overnight accommodations if you want to stay the night to take full advantage of the sunset and early morning viewing hours.

Chong Khneas

Chong Khneas 2

Chong Khneas

Chong Khneas is the floating village at the edge of the lake closest and most accessible to Siem Reap. If you want a relatively quick and easy look at the Tonle Sap, boat tours of Chong Khneas are available, departing from the Chong Khneas boat docks all day long. Take a tuk-tuk or taxi the 11-15 km from Siem Reap to the docks where there are always boats waiting for passengers. Boat pricing is variable, traditionally by the boat, but they’ll charge up to S20/pax. The boatman will probably point out the differing Khmer and Vietnamese floating households and the floating markets, clinics, schools and other boatloads of tourists.

Chong Khneas, while interesting, is over-touristed and is not as picturesque as floating villages further afield. The trip usually includes a couple of stops – usually one a touristy floating ‘fish and bird exhibition’ with a souvenir and snack shop. Sometimes they will also try to get you to agree to stop at a school or orphanage, which we do not recommend. Ask the operator to skip this part of the tour.

Kampong Phluk

Kompong Phluk-

Kompong Phluk

Kampong Phluk is a cluster of three villages of stilted houses built within the floodplain about 16 km southeast of Siem Reap. The villages are primarily Khmer and have about 3000 inhabitants between them. Flooded mangrove forest surrounds the area and is home to a variety of wildlife including crab-eating macaques. During the dry season when the lake is low, the buildings in the villages seem to soar atop their 6-meter stilts exposed by the lack of water. At this time of year many of the villagers move out onto the lake and build temporary houses. In the wet sea-son when water level rises, the villagers move back to their permanent houses on the floodplain, the stilts now hidden under the water.

Kampong Phluk’s economy is, as one might expect, based in fishing, primary in shrimp harvesting. Kampong Phluk sees comparatively few foreign visitors and offers a close look at the submerged forest and lakeside village life. The area can be reached by boat from the Chong Khneas or by road. It’s easiest to make arrangements through a tour operator, or if you are good at bargaining charter a boat at the Chong Khneas docks. During the wet season, drive to Roluos village just off Route #6 east of Siem Reap and then take a boat through the flooded forest the rest of the way. During the dry season the road is clear, making the boat unnecessary.

Kampong Khleang

Kampong Khleang

Kampong Khleang

Kampong Khleang is located on the northern lake-edge about 35 km east of Siem

Reap. It is more remote and less touristed than Kampong Phluk. Visitors during the dry season are universally awestruck by the forest of stilted houses rising up to 10 meters in the air. In the wet season the waters rise to within one or two meters of the buildings.

Kampong Khleang is a permanent community within the floodplain of the Lake, with an economy based in fishing and surrounded by flooded forest. But Kampong Khleang is significantly larger with near 10 times the population of Kampong Phluk, making it the largest community on the Lake. The area can be reached by boat from the Chong Khneas docks or by a combination of road to Domdek on Route #6 and then boat to the village, the best method depending on the time of year. During the dry season, boats cannot get all of the way to the main villages. Consult your guesthouse or tour operator about current conditions. Many tour operators have very little experience in this area so it is best to consult with adventure tour operators and guesthouses that specialize in this area.

To get there your-self, either charter a boat from Chong Khneas or take car or motor to Domdek village on road 6 east of Siem Reap, turn south and continue to the water’s edge where boats wait to ferry passengers into village. During the dry season the road is clear and you can take a car or motor all of the way to the village.

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