Tonle Sap and the Floating Villages

Most people associate Cambodia with Angkor Wat and the ruins of the Khmer dynasty. Let me take you on an unusual journey today, to the Tonle Sap lake and the floating villages around this lake. This is perhaps not on everyone’s list of places to see near Siem Reap; but let me tell you, it is a rather unique place, with a sad story behind it . A little bit on how these villages came to be ; will answer the natural questions that arise in your mind as you read along and see the pictures. The Tonle Sap is located south of Siem Reap. A short drive of about 40 minutes takes one to the northern tip of the lake where the floating village is situated.

Let me first tell you about my first encounter with Tonle Sap. I had a window seat on my flight from Ho Chi Minh city to Siem Reap. As the captain’s voice over the audio system heralded our landing at Siem Reap, I could see large water bodies and something that looked like marshlands below. It was not one of those clear days and it was nearing 6 pm. Wondering what this could be, I clicked some pictures for what it was worth. It was only two days later that I realised that what I had seen was the Tonle Sap lake and the floating villages. Take a look….

Tonle Sap and the villages ….an aerial View

The Tonle Sap [Sap is lake and Tonle is saltless in Khmer]

Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. It is not only a lake, but a complete eco system and a biosphere reserve. It provides water to half of Cambodia’s crops and almost all the requirements of fish . Apart from that, it is an important transportation link here. The Tonle Sap was a source of abundance to the ancient Khmers. In fact many historians attribute the prosperity of the ancient Khmer empire to the bounty provided by the Tonle Sap.

I have heard of increase and decrease in river water and drying up of lakes in summer but I was not aware of seasonal changes of this magnitude any where else.

During the dry season the Tonle Sap lake covers an area of 2500 sq. kms with a length of 160 kms. During the wet season, the lake grows over 16000 sq. kms with a length of 250 kms. That is a drastic increase in volume by 6 times !!!. A very unusual phenomenon occurs here. The Tonle Sap river takes water from the Tonle Sap lake and merges with the Mekong River. The flow of water towards the sea reverses during the wet months depending on the pressure of water in the Mekong river and the lake swells up enormously. Effectively the Tonle Sap lake is a large bowl which fills with water when the river flows into it and empties out when the river changes direction as it does every year!

The Tonle Sap is the focal point of life for a large section of Cambodians who depend on it directly or indirectly for their livelihood. Fishing , particularly exporting fish products like fish paste is the backbone of their survival. There are at least 300 species of fish living in the Tonle Sap . The floods help growth of large fish and they are easy to catch when the water recedes as they get caught in shallow pools or in the bamboo wires and nets.

The silt deposited during flooding is extremely fertile and local farmers have developed indigenous rice varieties that grow here.

There is a forest, a mangrove forest at the edge of the Tonle Sap that is an important eco system in itself. It is an important spawning and breeding ground for fish. This vital eco system harbours fish, snakes, turtles, otters and even crocodiles. A large number of water birds like storks and pelicans thrive here.

There are environmental concerns around this entire eco system. There has been a notable decrease in the numbers and variety of fish partly due to excessive fishing and partly due to conversion of traditional spawning grounds into agricultural areas. Dams built across the Mekong River are also a threat to the eco system of the Tonle Sap.

Floating Villages

The people who live in these floating villages are mainly immigrant Vietnamese who suffered heavy losses during the Khmer Rouge period. Many of the immigrants were killed in the civil war. The others who decided to stay in Cambodia continued in refugee camps and finally settled in these floating villages. As they do not have certification proving their Cambodian identity, they are considered stateless migrants and cannot own land. They are caught in the cycle of poverty and statelessness.

Life in these floating villages is quite a challenge and 90 percent of the villagers earn a livelihood from fishing and agriculture. Life of the villagers is intertwined with the lake, the fish, and the cycles of rising and falling waters of the lake. Pollution is threatening their health . No public sewage system exists and they use the lake (which is also the source of water supply) as a toilet and garbage dump!!

We took a drive from Siem Reap in our tour bus and reached the ferry boarding point. From there we boarded a Tara boat which took us on this tour of the floating villages.

Kampong Phluk

This is one of the four floating villages near Tonle Sap and the one we visited. The houses are made of bamboo and stand on stilts 6 to 10 meters high which are anchored to the bottom of the lake. It tends to give a feeling of a nomadic settlement but far from it; it has houses, schools, markets, churches, monasteries, hospitals and even a police station! The only mode of transportation is by boat and everyone is familiar with it.

As I said earlier, the muddy waters of the lake are used by these people for their daily requirements. The extreme poverty of the inhabitants of the village can be judged from this!

During the dry season, the water recedes and the stilts are clearly seen. During the wet season, the lake fills in and the villagers use the water for all their needs.

As the boat went past the houses, we saw the villagers going about their routines like fishing, washing and cooking. There are dogs, cats , poultry and pigs living there too!

As we reached the floating village.

A close up of the floating houses

The villagers go about their routine life

Trash and filth surrounding the houses

Man and animal coexisting under trying circumstances!!

A Floating Shrine

A floating restaurant

As I sat in the boat and looked at the houses and it’s people, something pulled at my heart strings. Am I not indirectly also causing pollution and environmental damage here as a tourist? That was a question I had no answer to. You see, it a chicken and egg situation. The villagers do benefit from the tourism that has started flourishing here. Many of them have left traditional occupations and turned to the tourist industry. All the same, I wouldn’t like tourists continuously looking at my house and surroundings as if it were a zoo! The helplessness of these people really touched me…..

Honestly, when our guide mentioned about floating villages, I only thought of some beautiful elite luxurious floating village. It was only when I reached the boat jetty and took the boat that I realised how wrong I had been!!!

As I was lost in thought, the sun was slowly going down on the Tonle Sap Lake. We just sat there on the boat and witnessed the sun setting on another day of our Viet Cam holiday. Share the feel….

The Sun sets on Tonle Sap….

With mixed feelings, we returned to our hotel for the night. As usual, the exchange of pictures took place and quietly, the sad thoughts took a back seat as we continued on our holiday.

This was my last blog on Cambodia and from next week, we move on to Vietnam. See you next week at Hanoi. Till then, do subscribe, like and comment on my blog. Your feedbacks are welcome too!!

5 thoughts on “Tonle Sap and the Floating Villages

  1. I remember Tonle Sap. We visited during the dry season and I remember learning how the inhabitants are mostly Vietnamese who can’t own land. It’s a fine lifestyle if you choose it, but clearly it is foisted on most of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely description of the trip. War and greed has always existed and caused grief. Yet people find means to survive 🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽

    Liked by 1 person

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