From Siem Reap, you can explore Tonle Sap lake and the floating villages. Before you book a tour though, I advise you to read some of the tripadvisor reviews to adjust your expectations.
The lake and the surrounding floodplains play an important role in Cambodia’s water system. Despite the fact that I had heard some negative reviews about the tours, I decided to book one in order to see one of the villages.
Tonle Sap lake and river
The Tonle Sap (tonlé: fresh, not salty and sap: great river, commonly translated to “great lake”) is situated roughly 20km southeast of Siem Reap and is considered the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The attached Tonle Sap river is about 120km long and connects the lake to the Mekong. The lake is surrounded by a floodplain overgrown with mangrove trees. This area is commonly called flooded forest.
The region has always been essential to Cambodia’s food provision and it is still considered the center of the freshwater fishery industry.
The lake plays an important role for the volume of the river Mekong because the flow of the Tonle Sap river reverses twice a year. During the monsoon season, the Mekong will swell and the Tonle Sap river will flow towards the lake, growing it from May/June to October/November (with the lake reaching its largest size in November). When the Mekong reaches its minimum, the flow will reverse and the Tonle Sap river will flow into it. The draining of the floodplain helps regulating the flow to the Mekong Delta during the dry season.
3 floating villages
Kampong Phluk, Kampong Khleang and Chong Kneas are 3 floating villages that can be visited.
I decided to visit Kampong Phluk with an organized, half-day tour. We were a group of 12 people and were picked up from our hostel/hotel at 8am in the morning. It took about an hour to pick up everyone, so if you are the first in the van, you will be touring Siem Reap for a while. If you are the last ones, be patient (as usual when it comes to buses in Southeast Asia).
Getting to Kampong Phluk
After leaving paved roads, we were driven through plains,where the rice cultivation had started (it was the middle of November, so dry season had officially started).
We reached the dock which was located at the end of the road. The number of tourist boats waiting to ship visitors through the village was both impressive and a little sad. Tourism has definitely taken over a huge part of the villagers’ life.
We were taken to one of them, driven by one of the villagers who was assisted by one of his kids (who was not attending school in order to help with the family business). Then, we were shipped along what I would call a main “canal” through the mangroves.
After about 20 minutes, we arrived at the village. The houses are built on stilts about 6m high. During the wet season, people live in there houses, but once the dry season starts and the water level falls, they will build temporary floating homes on the water. The village is interesting to see, especially if you haven’t visited any floating villages in the Mekong Delta, yet. When we drove through, we could see villagers going about their daily work. However, there were many kids around and it left me wondering whether they actually have schools or not.
We arrived at a platform where every tourist boat stopped for about an hour. We were greeted by many canoes and invited to pay for a tour through the village/mangrove. The price for the tour is $5 US and takes about 30 minutes. I decided to wait on the platform as did most people in my group.
We then drove through the mangroves until we reached Tonle Sap lake. It looks like you are driving out on the ocean as it is so vast you can’t see the shore on the other side. However, the boat drove out onto it for about 50m, then another canoe approached us to sell candy/drinks. After that, the boat took us back through the village to the dock.
Even though the village is interesting to see, I am not sure whether I would recommend a visit. The organized tour was disappointing as we spent more time in the van than on the boat. The whole thing is extremely commercialized and I can understand why many reviews talk about a tourist trap. Even if you hire a private tuk-tuk and go there on your own, chances are you will pay a hugely inflated price for a boat. I have heard from fellow travelers that the situation is similar when visiting the floating villages in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. So I guess you need to decide if you really want to see one of the villages and be ready to not let yourself be disappointed by the commercialization. I don’t regret having seen one of them but I also admit that I skipped the floating villages in Vietnam later on in my travels.
More things to do in and around Siem Reap