My first impression of Tonle Sap lake was that it seemed endless like a sea; a rather brown sea. It had stretched like an endless shimmering sheet of water as an equally huge blue sky had spanned overhead. Small fluffy white clouds had hung overhead and sun had sparkled on the water like a million diamonds. The colour of the lake had been an odd shade of buttery brown pink, similar to the hue of stale meat and though seemingly unappealingly, it had looked quite pretty. I had wondered at both the size and colour of Tonle Sap and taken in lungfuls of the dry hot air. It had been during a scammy, touristy Tonle Sap boat ride, that such thoughts had occurred to me and I had left the unique waterbody with mixed feelings.
Considered as the largest fresh water in South East Asia, Tonle Sap is indeed unique. Though, the dimension and the depth of the lake vary with season, Tonle Sap dominates Cambodian landscape. It is very interesting especially during the dry season from May to November, when water flows out from the lake into the Mekong river. This natural phenomenon of outflowing of water creates the lovely flooded forest and it turns into a breeding ground for fishes. Tone Sap in rich in aquatic and bird life and many biodiversities exist within its murky depths. Fresh water fishes, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, otters, fresh water fishes etc call it home and the Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve lies in its periphery. The lake is also commercially very important since it provides with more than half of Cambodia‘s fish consumption. Tourism also plays a major economic role and unfortunately this has turned this unique water body into a sort of touristy theme park.
Famous for pockets of lake side habitats, Tonle Sap‘s floating and stilted villages are major tourist draws. Inhabited by fishermen of ethnic Vietnamese origin, who have been living there for decades, these villages are far cry from the photogenic Myanmar‘s Lake Inle villages. Gritty with extremely basic conditions, the Tonle Sap villagers live in abject poverty and with fishing concessions being awarded to rich local businessmen, their livelihoods are increasingly threatened. Thus, Tonle Sap tourism is a boon with a downside for them and it has turned the sleepy fishing lake villages into busy commercial spots. The most popular among these villages, Chong Khneas lies at the edge of the lake and it is only 15 kilometres away from Siem Reap. A 30 minutes boat ride makes it the most easy to access lake village and Chong Khneas is a group tours hot favourite.
Thus it is hard nosed commercial, touristy and can be explored fully in 2 hours by boat. This trip usually includes a stop at a touristy floating village along with a fleeting visit to a “bird and fish exhibition”. A souvenir and snack shop along with brief stops at the Gecko Environment Centre completes this Tonle Sap floating village trip. Incidentally, the village of Chong Khneas is quite interesting with its small communities of Khmer, Vietnamese and Muslim floating quarters, markets, clinics, schools, pigsties, groceries etc. But, it is always crowded with boatfuls of other tourists, hustlers and noise. Apart from Chong Khneas, there are other villages like Kampong Phluk, Kompong Klang and the floating villages near Pursat and Kompong Chnnang on the opposite side of Tonle Sap.
Although, I did not like the floating village visit of Tonle Sap, strangely there are not many details that I remember of that trip. A dusty early morning tuk tuk ride had taken me to a boat dock and the country side had been prettily rural. And it had been a red earth country with blood ochre gashes of the ploughs still visible through the top sprout of young rice shoots. Large milky white birds had rested on the land and water buffalos had sat under skinny palm trees. The boat dock had been quite empty and it had not taken me much time to hop on one by myself. The ride through the stilted and floating villages had been uneventful and I had given visits to the crocodile farm amiss. The flooded forest had been beautiful and I remember changing into a smaller boat for that. Obviously a protected area, only hand rowed boats were allowed inside and it had been a mirroring green quiet sanctuary. Walkways had interconnected overhead and girls in hats had worked on fishing lines.
The boat trip had ended quite fast after the flooded forest stop and I had left Tonle Sap feeling extremely unsettled. It had been quite evident that Tonle Sap, like many of earth‘s water bodies was in danger, but for the first time, humans of the lake too seemed equally threatened. They seemed unwelcome, uncared for and somewhere had slipped through the growing economic development of the country. Sadly, Tonle Sap had occurred on the last day of my Siem Reap and I had moved on to Phnom Penh for some colonial beauty and lovely Mekong vibes.
TRAVEL TIP – Tonle Sap circles 5 provinces of Cambodia and supports more than 3 million people. Lying in the northwestern part of the country, it is quite an unique place and can be a nice day trip from Siem Reap, which is only 15 kilometres away. Many tour companies in Siem Reap offer the floating village day trip and you can combine it with flooded forest visit for a small extra fee. It is also possible to travel from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by express boat by crossing across the lake. However, this is recommended during the rainy season only when the water level is high enough.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE