Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake Review: Is it worth visiting?

Cambodia’s Great Tonle Sap Lake sits only 15 km south of town, a unique eco-system and cultural area offering the opportunity to see a different side of the Siem Reap – floating villages, cultural and nature tours, bird watching. For centuries, the lake has been a symbiotic part of the country’s existence, culture and identity. However, is it worth visiting? Let follow our article to find out where it should be added in your cambodia itinerary.

Tonle Sap Lake Facts

This lake is one of the most unique ecological water wonders in the world. It is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. One of the most interesting feature of Tonle Sap Lake is that it can change in size and dimension every wet season. During dry season, the Lake is fairly small with a minimum size of 2,800 km² and about 1 m depth . However, during the wet season the water of the Mekong river becomes so powerful, that it reverses the flow of the Tonle Sap river and pushes the surplus of rain water back into the Tonle Sap lake. This transforms the lake into a huge natural water reservoir and the lake’s size increases five-fold to 15,000 km2 with a depth of 8 m, inundating the surrounding forested floodplain and supporting an extraordinarily rich and diverse eco-system.This phenomenon is usually known as the ” unique hydrologic phenomenon”.

Tonle Sap Lake Ecosystem

The unique embankment creates a rich biodiversity of fish, birds, reptiles and other mammals around the lake. More than 100 varieties of waterbirds including several threatened and endangered species, over 300 species of fish, as well as 20 variety of snakes, 10 variety of turtles a crocodile species and a leopard cat species, otter and other wildlife inhabit the inundated mangrove forests. Every year, the lake yields about 300,000 tons of fish, making it one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems. The aquatic habitat provides 75% of the inland fishing catch and supports over 3 million people with food, which is half of the fissh consumed in Cambodia. 

There are huge giant catfish here, with record of specimens up to 300 kilogrammes. This endangered spieces is confined the Mekong and surrounding rivers and lakes.

A large crocodile farming industry thrives on and around Tonle Sap. The main species is the Siamese crocodile, critically endangered in the wild. The lake also provides a habitat for 13 different species of turtle.

Tonle Sap Lake Floating Village

In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive – floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters. 

Five provinces circled the area of Tonle Sap Lake, more than three million of population inhabited around the bank of the Lake and 90% of them earn a living by catching fish and making agricultures.

With the continuous change of the water level, the people who live on the lake have to move their houses away when the water level goes down. Whole villages including schools, shops, churches and pig farms are getting pulled away to a place where the water is still high enough to float.

Best time to visit Tonle Sap Lake

The best time to visit Tonle Sap Lake is the dry season from November to April , which is also the best time to visit Cambodia, when the water level falls and the birds are concentrated in a comparatively small area, this is for whom would like to see the bird sanctuary.

However, you can visit Tonle Sap Lake in the other months, from May to October. This is the moonson season in cambodia but it comes with many advantages. You can admire the beauty of flooded forests and floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake  by boat and the lush greenery of the countryside when the dust is gone. The rainfall usually comes in short showers for about one hour a day and the rest of the time would be sunny. Further more, you can take advantage of low season which is less touristy and the hotel rooms are much cheaper than in the peak season. 

What to expect to visit Tonle Sap Lake? Is it worth visiting Tonle Sap Lake?

Tonle Sap Lake is located about 15 km south of Siem Reap town; you can make your journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by express boat crossing the lake and dock at the village of Chong Khneas. Its takes only six hours, but this trip we may recommend you during Monsoon season. In dry season the boat sometimes stuck in mud because the water is low. There are several ways to see the culture and wildlife of the lake area depending on the amount of time you have and your interest.

Chong Khneas is the name of famous floating village at the edge of the lake. It locates at Southern part of Siem Reap town about 15 Km, and takes only 30 minutes by vehicles to the boat dock where there are always boats waiting for visitors. The boat trip through the floating village takes approximately two hours. You will explore the different of Khmer, Muslim and Vietnamese floating households and the floating markets, fisheries, clinics, schools, basketball course, pigsty and other boatloads of tourists. 

Chong Khneas, was before very interesting, but now region is owned by private firm they did increasing prices and the area looks more commercial. The boat trip usually includes two stops: one at a touristy floating ‘fish and bird exhibition’ with a souvenir and snack shop, and the other at the very highly recommended Gecko Environment Centre, which offers displays and information introducing the ecology and biodiversity of the lake area.

Recently, Tonle Sap is in trouble — from overfishing to feed a fast-growing population, from the cutting of mangrove forests that shelter young fish, from hydroelectric dams upstream, and from the dry seasons that are expected to grow hotter and longer with climate change. “The lake now is not really so good,”  “There are too many people.” – said by a local. 

Another thing is that there are a lot of scams out on the lake,  you’d better prepare for that. You will pay $15 -$30 US per person for a 45 min – 1.5 hour boat ride. You will wonder why they only take one group out per boat, even if you are alone, but this is to make the scam easier. You will be told sob stories about orphans and poor children and then they will try to get more money from you. They will:

1. Ask you to take a smaller boat to the floating villages (at an additional $15 per person)

2. Ask you to buy rice for the orphanage. Here, they will high pressure you to buy 1 or 2 bags of rice for $50-$60 US each, which will later be sold back to the store.

3. You will be taken to an “orphanage” where they will ask you for a donation. These kids are not really orphans.

4. The boat guide will ask you for a tip at the end of the trip.

If you pay, rest assured that the money will not benefit anybody in real need. Fortunately, if you get caught up in this, you can decline all requests. You will be met with disdain, but you will not be in danger. Better yet, book a tour from Siem Reap instead.

Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake Review: Is it worth visiting?
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