Some of the homes are 30 feet tall, painted brilliant blue, and perched atop bamboo skeleton networks. Others are painted in hues of green, red, and yellow and float directly on the water’s surface on pontoons made from massive truck tires. Sun-bleached front porches display flags of the day’s laundry, while chicken coops are woven from reeds and float on a foundation of bicycle tires.
This is the scene and home of over 100,000 Cambodians who reside on the northern rim of the Tonle Sap Lake, which is located west of the geographical center of this small Southeast Asian country. If you need to get somewhere in these Floating Villages, you will need a boat.
The Tonle Sap, which in Cambodian Khmer means “Great Lake,” is the largest freshwater body in all of Southeast Asia. At the lake’s southern end is the 75-mile-long Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake to the massive Mekong River, which flows from China, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, before reaching the southern Vietnamese coastline.
Due to the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap is the only river to reverse its course annually. May brings the first monsoon season rains. When the Mekong rises, water is pushed back into the flood basin. The Tonle Sap River water then backs up and flows into the lake. This yearly influx of water generates currents that flow in one direction during the dry season and in the opposite direction during the wet season. The seasonal change has made this region of Cambodia one of the most productive and prosperous fisheries in the world.
The Tonle Sap is also home to an incredible array of plant and animal species. The critically endangered Bengal Florican and the White-shouldered Ibis, as well as a number of snake species, frequent these waters. The Giant Mekong Catfish can reach nearly 700 pounds and nine feet in length below the lake’s surface.
In Asia, the native Siamese Crocodile is also listed as an endangered species. However, the Tonle Sap’s communities have intermittently acquired the rights to farm them over the years. Unfortunately, this has contributed to the decimation of wild populations in order to profit from the sale of crocodile skins. The proximity of crocodile pens to many of the homes makes a misstep potentially fatal.
Regarding the human communities of these water villages, family trees can span more than a century. Continually, generations live and work at the water’s surface.
Existence is both lovely and cruel. The sun above Cambodia bakes the soil and the water to a similar shade of tawny brown, which they both wear. During the dry season, portions of the lake are no deeper than the ankle, while others completely dry up. When spring monsoons arrive, the water level and floating homes rise dramatically. During a heavy rainy season, the Tonle Sap Lake and its surrounding river basin can swell up to seven times their normal size.
At dawn, fishermen set out with lines and nets. A good day’s catch is sold both locally and internationally. There are some similarities to life on the mainland, such as friendly pets and clean, beautiful kitchens.
In the face of catastrophic climate change, the Tonle Sap carries the anxieties of all coastal communities in the world. However, communities such as this one are hit first and hardest. This is one of the most threatened regions in the world due to climate change.
In 2018, lower water levels shortened the season for the famous river reversal, as reported by Vice. If this continues, or if the river reversal completely ceases, the impact on the local families will be catastrophic. It will decimate a once-thriving fishing industry and one of the most unique communities in the world.
As with all responsible travel, ensure that the company you use employs and compensates locals fairly. The picturesque villages of Kampong Khleang and Kampong Phluk are one hour from Siem Reap; however, you should not reserve a boat until you arrive at the village, but rather after.
The final village of Mechrey is a top choice for birdwatchers. This floating community is located one hour west of Siem Reap, on the outskirts of the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve. It comes to life in the late afternoons when the sun begins to set and the children leave their floating classrooms to sail home on boats and play in the water with their friends.
The region’s tourism industry has increased over the past decade. If you are in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, you can drive 35 minutes to reach the nearest floating village, Chong Kneas.
Unfortunately, the close proximity of Chong Kneas has made it an attractive destination for those with tight schedules. Due to the lack of tourism infrastructure, the village is crowded during the peak season, which has caused more harm than good. People booking tours in Siem Reap with operators based in that city is one of the biggest issues. Very little of this money ultimately remains in the village.
In conclusion, Cambodian culture values modesty. Before visiting a rural community, replace your tank tops with long-sleeved shirts and your shorts with flowy pants or a dress.