The Siem Reap’s floating villages are scattered in Tonal Sap Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. These villages are not houses on stilts along the lakeshore or close to the water on the solid ground. These villages are inside the lake. The life in these floating villages is not easy and the boat is required for every job outside the house. It can be grocery shopping or dropping kids for school or going to church/Pagoda for praying. Everything is done by a boat.
The Tonal Sap Lake is a unique water body which dramatically changes the size throughout the year. In the wet season from June to October, the lake swells with water from the Mekong River. In the dry season, from November to May Lake shrinks in size.
The Lake also works as natural floodwater reservoir for the Mekong water system by regulating the water downstream from Phnom Penh during the wet season. Tonle Sap Lake’s size varies from 16,000 SQ km in the wet season to 3000 km during the dry season.
In this way, Lake balances the water of Mekong river, in the wet season by increasing the size & collecting extra water and in the dry season when the water reduces in Mekong river than water flows back into the Mekong River to the Mekong Delta.
There are approx 170 floating villages spread across the lake. Fishing is the main source of income for approx 80,000 people living on the water in these floating villages. The lake provides 3 million people with fresh water fish. The people living in these villages make a living from what the lake provides they mainly do fishing or do shrimp and crocodile farming or by boat making or by selling dry fish etc. They bathe, wash clothes and clean houses from lake’s water. The income is steady but life is not easy on the water.
These floating communities are fully functional with water streets, use boats instead of cars, children go to floating schools, there are shops for buying groceries and other items, clinics and hospital, ice factory, church/pagoda for praying and a generator for electricity. I have been told that there are floating police stations also. The houses were made on raised platforms of 10 meters or more high stilts.
There are freshwater mangroves and surrounds parts of the lake, these are popularly known as the “flooded forest”. These forests are popular among tourists and can be explored by small pedal boats in the wet season, during the dry season water level goes down and going to flooded forest is not recommended.
The closest floating village Chong Khneas is approx 15 km southwest of Siem Reap. Tuk-Tuk drive takes 30 minutes from Siem Reap to the boat deck. The return boat tour from boat deck to the floating village takes 1&1/2 to 2 hours.
My Experience –
I have booked the Siem Reap’s floating villages tour through my hostel’s travel desk. There were 4 of us and he quoted 15 USD per person for Tuk-Tuk and boat ride. We planned to go early around 6.30 AM. When I got ready to go in the morning, one person refused to go and finally we were 3. Due to last minute drop, travel desk guy increased the price and finally, we had paid 18 USD PP.
Our Tuk-Tuk came on time and we started our journey. As we crossed the city limits, I have seen many lotus ponds on both sides of the road though flowers were not blooming due to the sunlight it was an interesting sight. We reached the boat deck pretty fast because there was no traffic in the morning.
We paid total amount to the ticket counter guy and he assigned one guide to us.
This trip is for people who want to see how people live on water and is definitely not for the people who expect luxury.
There was a fish market on the shore, closer to the boat deck.
Our boat moved around for some time around different floating buildings in village and guide explained us each one, after that we started our return. On the way back boat guy stopped at a crocodile farm, which doubled up as a restaurant and souvenir cum clothes shop. We spent some time there and returned to the boat. Rest of the journey was uneventful.
Some tips while taking tour of Siem Reap’s floating villages –
* Book the tour in advance and negotiate the price. Fix a final price with all inclusion to avoid last minute surprises.
* Price for paddle boat for going inside floating forest is extra and to be paid on the spot.* Go in the morning to avoid the heat. Boats are basic and with wooden seats. Or If you are comfortable coming back in dark then take late evening trip and watch the sunset in the lake.
* Carry water bottles because it gets hot during the day.
* Wear comfortable shoes because ramp to the boat is slippery and sandals with heels will trouble. Secondly, if you change to the small paddle boat to visit floating forest then comfortable shoes are best.
* If you are not going in the wet season then avoid a visit to floating forest because in low water sometimes paddle boats get stuck.
* I have been advised by some locals and other travelers to avoid visiting schools because they plead for money to buy books or rice, however, the money is seldom used for children. To support communities in the Siem Reap’s floating village region, it is advisable to spend money on paddle boats, souvenir shops, restaurants or shops. The money we pay them mostly goes directly to the community.
* Tip the guide after the Siem Reap’s floating villages tour.
Popular and most visited places in Siem Reap’s floating villages –
The 3 noteworthy villages in Tonal Sap Lake are Chong Khneas, Kampong Phluk, and Kampong Khleang.
* Chong Khneas is mostly Vietnamese and touristy. It is not the most picturesque but is the closest to Siem Reap and an easy day trip.
* Kampong Phluk (some call it Jack & Jill’s travel adventure village), it is mostly Khmer and consists of three villages. These villages are surrounded by mangrove forests. In wet season people live in their stilted homes, but in the dry season, the houses are far from the ground. Here people built temporary floating homes on the water.
* Kampong Khleang is 35 km southeast from Siem Reap. The houses here are raised to 10 meters high stilts. The population here is many times more than other floating villages and it is the largest community of Siem Reap’s floating villages.