Ride on the Tonle Sap

The Tonle Sap lake, in the central region of Cambodia, is not a usual lake by any standards. It's a beating heart, with only one slow, strong pulse a year.

It starts in June, when winds from the Arabian sea reverse direction from northeast to southwest, and signal the coming monsoon. Over the ensuing 6 months, rains accumulate over an area the size of Texas, and join into the Mekong river, coming from as far as the Himalayas. In Phnom Penh, the surge is such that there's simply too much water to go downstream to neighbouring Vietnam, so the Mekong overflows into the Tonle Sap, one of its tributary.

When the monsoon ends in November, the lake has swollen to 5 times its size from the dry season, and measures 300 km in length and over 100 km at its widest point. That's 12000 square km, or enough to put NYC and the whole of Long Island under 60 feet of water.

At the height of the flooding, waters have reached the surrounding plains, engulfed the forests, carrying sediments into newly created wetlands. This intricate labyrinth of vegetation and trees provides food and safe breeding grounds for birds and fish, thereby supporting a rich ecosystem. Estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation rank its biodiversity second in the world, tailing the Amazon basin. To the naked eye, it's a wildlife heaven, with hundreds of species of birds, fish, and reptiles.

A bird paradise

Regarded as one of the most important breeding ground of wild water-based birds in South East Asia, the Tonle Sap lake is especially important to wild-life.

Each year, ornithologists and keen birders from around the world roam the flood plains, on the look out for the 150+ species that are found there. Among them the rare, and endangered Bengal Florican, Spot-Billed Pelican, Great Adjutant, Lesser Adjutant, Darter, Milky Stork, Painted Stork, Grey-Headed Fish Eagle, Black-headed Ibis, and the Manchurian reed warbler.

In 2001 the Tonle Sap and its surrounding provinces were established into a Biosphere Reserve, with the broader goal to protect their unique fauna and flora, and to promote sustainable forms of development by involving local populations.

Prek Toal Core Bird Sanctuary, North West of Tonle Sap lake.Prek Toal Core Bird Sanctuary, North West of Tonle Sap lake.

The Biosphere Reserve is split into three main sections; Prek Toal, Boeng Chhmar, and Stung Sen, otherwise categorised as the core zone, buffer zone, and transition zone. The core zone role is to act as a national park, by gradually restoring its essential habitat for biodiversity. Until the abolishment of commercial fishing concessions in 2011, Prek Toal was one of the most productive section of the lake, with catch worth several millions dollars a year.

While Prek Toal bird sanctuary can be reached from Siem Reap on a day trip, access requires some logistics. During the wet season, it's a large freshwater swamp forest better discovered on a kayak. It's also an important place in South East Asia for the number and populations of endangered water birds it supports. Large flocks of cormorants, storks and pelicans are almost guaranteed from January to May, along with herons, egrets and terns.

Flock of white egrets, Prek Toal, Cambodia.Flock of white egrets, at dawn, in Prek Toal core reserve.

Floating houses on the Tonle Sap

The buffer and transition zones are home to more than 1.5 million people, making the lake a critical source of food, income and economic activity. Fishing is the primary activity that supports the villages built around the edge of the river, bringing a catch of about 300,000 tons of fish every year, accounting for 60% of the country's protein intake.

Floating (and stilt) houses are a regular sight around the edges of the Tonle Sap lake, with over 60 villages in the buffer and transition zones. Stilt houses, as shown below, provide long term housing, but require obvious efforts to stay above the water line. As the lake fills, families move higher up on their uniquely designed homes.

Stilt house on the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.Children coming back from school in Kampong Phluk village on the Tonle Sap lake.

With more permanent housing, villages have developed substantially, making room for schools, markets, restaurants, and even wedding platforms.

In contrast, floating houses, built on bamboo rafts, simply relocate to follow the ebb and flow of the lake. Along the way, shops, floating markets move with them, keeping alive the picturesque sight of paddle boats loaded with fresh produce.

The village of Kampong Phluk epitomise a blend between stilt and floating house, together with providing interesting scenic views of the lake and the flooded tree line around it. It is easily reached from Siem Reap, and therefore has gained popularity amongst tourists wishing to sample local life, while on a trip to Angkor Wat. Inevitably, a growing number of overpriced boat trips, and expensive bag of rice sold for a good cause have ensued, leaving enthusiast tourists with a less than optimal experience. It's important to exercise common sense, and if possible to pick deals with a clear option to check previous user experience.

When to visit the Tonle Sap?

The best time of year to visit the Tonle Sap is probably during the wet season. Huge colonies of birds flock its waters from June to November, although during this time they usually retreat into more remote parts of the Lake. Therefore visitors tend to travel during the dry months of December to May when the birds are easy to find.

If you have a taste for the lake during high waters, the months of October and November offer also great alternatives. South East Asia experiences the tail of the monsoon, so rains are sparse, usually bursting well into the evening. On the plus side, the vegetation is lush, rice paddies are high and green, rural Cambodia is on its Sunday's best. And finally, with the high season still a month away, it's usually a quieter period.

Getting there

The Siem Reap province is first and foremost known for Angkor Wat, a world heritage site, and also the largest religious monument in the world. First built as a Hindu temple, and later converted to Buddhism, it has become a symbol of Cambodia, with its shape appearing on the country's national flag.

From Siem Reap, visit to the floating villages of Tonle Sap can be organised with the help of a local agent, or all by yourself, for a broad range of prices. Before shopping for your tour, the first thing you should determine is the type of experience you'd like to have.

Prices go from $20 per person for an afternoon boat tour, to about a hundred dollars with a tour agent from Siem Reap. In the latter case you will go kayaking to the flooded forests in the morning, and in the afternoon, relax in a quiet (or busy if you so choose) floating village. With an english speaking guide introducing you to locals, it's also an immersive experience. Hotel pickup and food are usually included.

The Biosphere in the Northern part of the lake is a genuine wonder, with at time hundreds of birds around you, standing on the branches of trees, their roots 30 feet under water. It's also a unique place of Asian life style that is worth getting acquainted to. Researching the details of your experience early on will help you keep your expectations aligned with your budget.

    Experiencing the Tonle Sap and its floating villages

Nick lives in Siem Reap; he and his team are outdoors enthusiasts, and know the country side like the back of their hand. They go to Prek Toal on kayaks, to admire the flock of white egrets at dawn (yes, that's his picture) or meditate at sunset on the terrace of a stilt house.

If you have kimshi iPhone App, you can send him a direct message : Open in App, take a closer look at his tour Prek Toal overnight or his 8 day Cambodia South West, an itinerary starting from the oldest Angkorian Temple, going through the mangroves of the Tatai river, and ending on a deserted coral island getaway.

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pictures Nick Butler ©
text kimshi ©