Last updated on January 6th, 2018
A unique ecosystem
In Khmer we call it Boeng Tonle Sap (the Lake of the Freshwater River). Tonle Sap Lake is at the heart of Cambodia’s fertile floodplains, inland fisheries, culture and traditional livelihoods. It is no wonder that the Khmer build their greatest cities in the watershed of munificent Tonle Sap. You’ve visited the temples of Angkor, and you’re already familiar with the scale of the city that once was. Cambodia’s Great Lake is on the same scale: it’s really big!
Tonle Sap Lake covers an area of 2,500 km² in the dry season for a length of 120 km. These are honourable dimensions, as a speedboat would still take a few hours from Siem Reap to Battambang. In the wet season, with runoff from the Mekong tributaries and rainfall, the lake swells six times to a size of 16,000 km² and a length of 250 km. Simply put, Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater body in Asia and one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Fish production could be as high at 65 kg/ha/year, compared to an average of 12/kg/ha/year for tropical fisheries worldwide!
Cambodians love fish, it’s part of our staple diet and Tonle Sap Lake has always been generous with us. The lake is an essential fish habitat and breeding ground for the whole kingdom. The forest that surrounds the lake, the so-called inundated forest (a unique 20-40 km wide belt of freshwater mangroves), teems with wildlife. The fish nest in the branches, the leaves, the nooks and crannies of the trees during the monsoon floods!
How to get to Tonle Sap Lake from Siem Reap
Back in Angkorian times, you use to be able to paddle your way from Phnom Kulen (the first Angkor to the north of Angkor Wat), all the way to Tonle Sap Lake, through the interconnected barays (the famed Khmer elevated reservoirs). The Siem Reap River is actually a surviving man made canal. Angkor in its heydays was a “hydraulic city” that relied on sophisticated water management for agriculture and transport.
We don’t recommend using a dinghy to waddle your way to Tonle Sap Lake (if you insist, use a local fisher with a traditional boat, negotiating the foodgates will be troublesome). The easiest and shortest way to the lake will take you about half an hour by road to the village of Chnong Kneas. So book a trip with your favourite moto taxi or tuk tuk.
Chong Kneas is a small harbour for boats to Phnom Penh, and a floating village where busloads of tourists get transferred to boatloads… It’s hustling and bustling alright, but it lacks charm, especially in the dry season, where everything is sort of dusty and dirty. Nevertheless, Chong Kneas is a quick and easy way to experience life on the shores of the lake.
Things to do and to see at Tonle Sap Lake
So yes, go on, get yourself a rod, line, sink and hook from a village market. Rise early to catch sunrise from the fortress at Phnom Krom, the mountain that still guards access to Angkor through the Western Baray, south of Siem Reap.
It shouldn’t take you long to catch one of 200 local fish species. If you’re greedy, you could ask a villager to show you how to cast a net… Even if you don’t catch anything, just drifting on your row boat is a very relaxing experience. I’m quite the fisher, even if my friends just snooze off. I don’t mind and they don’t mind the gentle waves of the Great Lake.
Chong Kneas: docks and floating village (floating market, floating school, floating fish farm, floating houses, floating gas station, floating clinic and even floating tourists…)
Kompong Phluk: village built on stilts located 16 km southeast of Siem Reap, beautiful mangrove forest populated with crab eating monkeys. Accessible by boat from Chong Kneas, and during the dry season by road from Siem Reap. Far less touristy than Chong Kneas.
Kompong Khleang: one of the larger settlements on the lake’s fertile shores, 35 km east of Siem Reap. Accessible by boat from Chong Kneas, and during the dry season by road from Siem Reap. Houses on stilts and floating village (with pretty much everything on water, except for the pagoda built on an island). Tourist? Where?
Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary: a crucial habitat and breeding ground for large birds in Southeast Asia (it’s a Ramsar site, a wetland of international significance), located 31 km south from Siem Reap. This biosphere reserve is accessible from Chong Kneas by boat (an hour long cruise). You won’t need camouflage to see huge adjutant storks, spot-billed pelicans and the occasional giant ibis. This is bird territory, you’re just visiting…
Trying to pack more activities, cultural discoveries, walks and local experiences in your busy sightseeing days? Check out our posts on things to do in Siem Reap!