Locals have adapted to the dramatic seasonal fluctuations of Tonlé Sap Lake by building floating villages and bamboo skyscrapers towering high on stilts. Here’s how to experience life on the water on a day trip from Siem Reap.

By - Mark | Last Updated - 11 Apr 2024 | Go to - Comments & Questions

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Tonlé Sap (Prek Kdam) is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. This massive body of freshwater sustains over 200 species of fish and provides a livelihood for over a million Cambodians.

The lake is special for its remarkable seasonal fluctuations.

Acting as a natural flood reservoir for the Mekong River system, Tonlé Sap rises and falls up to 9 metres between the wet and dry seasons. Locals have adapted to this fluctuating ecosystem by building floating villages along the banks of the lake.

Over recent years some villages have become tourist traps, while others still provide an authentic experience with tourist income positively supporting the community.

A day trip to the Tonlé Sap villages is one of the best things to do in Siem Reap. Here are our recommendations for which villages to see and how to see them.

IN THIS GUIDE

TONLÉ SAP FLOATING VILLAGES


01. CHONG KHNEAS

02. KAMPONG PHLUK

03. KAMPONG KHLEANG

04. PREK TOAL

05. BATTAMBANG CRUISE

FLOATING VILLAGES OF TONLÉ SAP LAKE

Tonlé Sap Lake is a remarkable ecosystem.

In the wet season (June to October) torrential rains in southeast Asia and snow melt from Tibet forces water from the Mekong up through Tonlé Sap River into Tonlé Lake.

In the dry season (November to May), the river reverses direction and starts to flow back out to sea via the Mekong River.

At the peak of the wet season, the lake can be 9 metres higher than it was in the dry season with a surface area swelling from 2,500 km2 to 16,000 km2.

This means locals must adapt. Many live in floating villages on the lake, or in houses built on towering stilts along its fluctuating banks.

There are five different ways to explore these floating villages and we provide a breakdown on each of them below.  

tonle sap floating village
KOMPONG PHLUK

MAP | VILLAGES OF TONLÉ SAP

The villages of Tonlé Sap are dotted along the northern shore, making them accessible from Siem Reap. Read our Siem Reap guide for more activities in the area.

1. CHONG KHNEAS

The village of Chong Khneas is home to about 1,000 families. Their homes are built on solid land, on stilts or on floating platforms that drift on the lake. It’s the closest floating village to Siem Reap and the easiest to visit independently.

When we first visited here in 2010 it was a wonderful experience. Our private guide took us amongst locals going about their daily lives and there were very few tourists.   

These days it’s a very different experience. Boat tours ferry tourists between a crocodile farm and souvenir shops. There is very little of the real Cambodia to see and there’s constant hassle to purchase overpriced souvenirs.  

We suggest you head further afield to one of the other villages. But if you do go to Chong Khneas, stop at the mountain temple of Phnom Krom on the way.

How to visit Chong Khneas – Tuk-tuks from Siem Reap to Chong Khneas take about 40 minutes each way and cost about $13 return. It’s free to walk around the village on land. Boat tours from the dock last 2 hours and cost $28 (per boat) and up to 8 people and generally won’t leave until it’s full.  

2. KOMPONG PHLUK

Kompong Phluk is one of the best floating villages on Tonlé Sap with houses built on towering stilts. In the dry season they are elevated high above the muddy banks of the lake, but in the wet season they appear to float just above the water’s surface.

Tours vary depending on the time of year, but usually, they consist of four components:

  • A boat ride along the river passing stilted houses.
  • A walk through Kompong Phluk Village to see the temple, school and houses.
  • An optional ride in a canoe through the floating forest of dense mangroves ($5 per person).
  • Sunset drinks or dinner on a floating restaurant.  

It’s an excellent experience, although it can be busy. There is a chance to meet the locals and some of the money from the tour goes back to the village, especially if you take the optional canoe ride through the floating forest which is powered by local women.

How to visit Kompong Phluk – The best way to see Kompong Phluk is on a half-day tour. Tours can be booked online and cost about $25 per person. Pick up from your accommodation is included.

Important Note – Cash is required to pay for the optional canoe ride, and food and drinks in the floating restaurant. This needs to be good quality US notes without any marks or tears, or the equivalent in Cambodian Riel.

kompong phluk village tonle sap
KOMPONG PHLUK

3 – KOMPONG KHLEANG

Kompong Khleang is the largest floating village on Tonlé Sap, with ten times the population of Kompong Phluk. Located 55 kilometres from Siem Reap (a 75–90-minute drive each way) it gets far fewer visitors.

Apart from the fact that it’s much quieter, you can also support the community by using Kompong Khleang Tours. This organisation gets ongoing approval for its activities from the village, involves them in decisions, and employs villagers. Profits are reinvested back into the community with almost 50% helping fund education at the Bridge of Life School.

The shared group tour includes a visit to the Bridge of Life School, a walking tour of the village, a community boat ride, and an ethnic Vietnamese village. It ends with sunset on the lake.

It’s a great community-led experience, however, it’s more expensive than Kompong Phluk and it involves 3 hours of driving for only 2.5 hours exploring the floating village.

How to visit Kompong Khleang –  Shared group tours ($35 per person) leave at 2 pm from Siem Reap and take 5.5 hours. Longer private tours are $250 for up to 4 people and can be combined with a visit to Beng Mealea, one of the most atmospheric Angkor temples

4.  PREK TOAL

Prek Toal Floating village is at the western end of Tonlé Sap, where the Sangkae River flows into the lake. Surrounding the village, the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary is a unique ecosystem that is home to 150 different species, seven of which are of global significance.

Keen birders can see the Spot Billed Pelican, Milky Stork, Painted Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Greater Adjutant, Blackheaded Ibis, and Oriental Darter. From January to May, large flocks of cormorants, storks and pelicans are almost guaranteed.

Tours combine early morning bird watching, with lunch in Prek Toal Village followed by a paddle around the stilted and floating houses.

Prek Toal tours are expensive by Cambodian standards, and it takes considerable time to get there, so it’s a 5.30 am start. Unless you’re an avid bird watcher, it’s probably better to visit Kompong Phluk or Kompong Khleang.

How to visit Prek Toal – Several tour operators provide similarly priced tours. They cost roughly $295 for 1 person, $450 for 2, $510 for 3, $600 for 4. Tours leave Siem Reap around 5.30 am and return around 4 pm. Pickup, drop-off, breakfast, and lunch are included.

5 – BATTAMBANG TO SIEM REAP BOAT RIDE

Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are the essential stops on any Cambodia itinerary, but the laidback lifestyle and French architecture of Battambang has its own allure.

Battambang is only 2 hours 45 minutes by bus from Siem Reap, but it’s also possible to go by boat.

The trip takes 5 to 9 hours depending on the season. Boats leave from the dock at Chong Khneas, travel down the western end of Tonlé Sap Lake, and then up the Sangkae River to Battambang.

Along the way, it passes several floating villages including Khum Koh Chiveang and stops at a floating restaurant for lunch.

This is not a luxury boat ride. The wooden boats are basic and the seats not particularly comfortable. One side of the boat will be in sun all the time, and there are no toilets onboard.

It is however a good way to see Cambodian life. Locals hop on and off as they travel between villages, and you are quickly off the beaten track.

It’s a good option if you’re travelling through Cambodia on the slow, but if you have a packed itinerary there may be better ways to spend your time.

How to take the boat – Two companies offer the boat ride on alternate days: Angkor Express Boat and Chann-Na. The journey costs $35 one way and takes 5-6 hours from August to February and 8-9 hours from March to July.

tonle sap

MORE TRAVEL TIPS FOR CAMBODIA

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