This is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. And it is famous for the number of floating villages that exist on the lake.
The village Kampong Khleang is about a one-hour drive from Siem Reap and is an ideal place from which to board a boat to go and explore those floating villages.
Kampong Khleang was situated on dry land when I visited, and all of the houses are built on very high stilts. This is because I visited in the dry season when the lake is very low. From May onwards, the lake received water from the mighty Mekong River, of which the Tonle Sap River is a small tributary.
That’s because the Mekong carries huge volumes of water from the Himalayas, which flood the Tonle Sap Lake, almost doubling its size.
That’s when those stilts come in handy, as they ensure the houses are protected by the predictable floods. The jetties and walkways in the village are all designed to float.
The lake itself is a frequently changing marvel.
During the rainy season from mid-May to the beginning of October, the water level of the Mekong River is four times higher than in the dry months. Large water quantities flow via the Tonle Sap River in the Tonle Sap Lake, the surface of which can reach up to 16,000 sq. km. Its maximum depth then is about 14 m.
In November, when the Mekong River carries less water, the flow direction of the Tonle Sap River changes. Then huge quantities of water flow back from Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong River, and the surface of the lake shrinks to 2,500 sq. km, its maximum depth amounts to 2 – 3 m only.
Due to this unique natural phenomenon, Tonle Sap Lake is very rich in freshwater fish. In the floodplains, rice has been cultivated for centuries.
Tonle Sap is home to over 200 species of fish, but these days fishing is regulated so as to protect the lake’s biodiversity.
The floating villages seem to be quite small but there are more than 170 of them scattered all over the lake.
Of course, a lot of trade is done by boat which goes from house to house in order to sell their goods.
Tonle Sap is unique and well worth the trip from Siem Reap. There are some good temple ruins near Kampong Khleang, which don’t attract anywhere near the number of tourists who visit Angkor Wat, so combining the two attractions is well worthwhile.