Tonle Sap Lake – the Inland Sea in Cambodia

Tonle Sap Lake is located on the Indochina Peninsula, in the heart of Cambodia. From the Khmer language its name translates as “large fresh river” or simply “fresh water”. Tonle Sap has another name – “the river is the heart of Cambodia.” This is due to the fact that the lake constantly changes its shape during the rainy season, and shrinks like a heart.

Tonle Sap Lake

Characteristics and features of the lake

Map of Tonle Sap Lake

Most of the season, Tonle Sap is not great: its depth does not reach even 1 meter, and it occupies about 2700 km². Everything changes during the rainy season, when the level of the Mekong River rises by 7-9 meters. The peak falls on September and October: the lake becomes 5 times larger in area (16,000 km²) and 9 in depth (reaches 9 meters). By the way, this is precisely why Tonle Sap is so fertile: there are many species of fish (about 850), shrimp and shellfish, and the lake itself is one of the most productive freshwater resources in the world.

Pelican on Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap also helps the country’s agriculture: after the rainy season, the water of rivers and lakes gradually disappears, and the fertile sludge, due to which the plants grow better, remains in the fields. The lake is also full of animals: turtles, snakes, birds, rare species of spiders live here. In general, Tonle Sap is a real source of life, both for animals and for people: they live on this water, prepare food, wash, relieve and relax. Moreover, even the dead are buried here – apparently the Vietnamese’s health and nerves are very strong.

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Like almost all places on the planet, Lake Tonle Sap has its own secret: the Vietnamese are sure that a water snake or dragon lives in the water. Talking about him and saying his name is not accepted, because it can cause trouble.

Floating villages on the lake

Floating villages

Perhaps the main attractions of Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia are houseboats in which more than 100,000 people live (according to some sources, up to 2 million). Oddly enough, these houses do not belong to the Khmers, but to Vietnamese illegal immigrants. On these houses the whole life of people passes – here they relax, work, and live. Locals feed on fish, shrimp and shellfish. Snakes and crocodiles are also often caught and dried.

Earn in the photo with snakes

Vietnamese earn mainly on tourists: they conduct excursions along the rivers and make paid photos with snakes. Costs are minimal, but revenue is high. Children do not lag behind in earnings from adults: they massage tourists, or simply beg. Sometimes a child’s income per day reaches $ 45-50, which by the standards of Cambodia is very, very good.

Easy to understand who is rich

Houseboats seem to resemble ordinary village sheds – dirty, wiped and untidy. There are huts on high wooden stilts, and near each one you can see a small boat. Surprisingly, there is no furniture in the houses, so absolutely all things are stored on the street, and clothes are hanging year-round on ropes in front of the hut. It is easy to understand who is poor and who is rich.

Tonle Sap School

Strange as it may seem, there are quite a few advantages of that housing:

  • firstly, those living here do not pay land tax, which for many families is simply unbearable;
  • secondly, you can eat here almost for free;
  • and thirdly, life on water is not so different from life on land: children also go to school and kindergarten, attend a sports hall.
Gas station on Tonle Sap Lake
Gas station

The Vietnamese in Tonle Sap have their own markets, office buildings, churches and even boat services. Especially for tourists, eateries and several small cafes are equipped. Some rich houses have a TV. But the main disadvantage is unsanitary conditions.

But why did the Vietnamese illegal immigrants choose such an uncomfortable and unusual place to create a village? There is one interesting version on this subject. When a war broke out in Vietnam in the last century, people were forced to leave their country. However, according to the laws of that time, foreigners did not have the right to live on the Khmer land. But nothing was said about water – the Vietnamese settled here.

Lake Tours

Tourist boat on Tonle Sap Lake

The most popular and easiest way for Cambodians to earn money is to conduct excursions for tourists and talk about the life of people on the water. Therefore, finding a suitable tour is not difficult. Any Cambodian travel agency will offer you a tour of Tonle Sap or the Mekong River. However, it is most convenient to go to the lake from the city of Siem Reap (Siem Reap), which is 15 km from the attraction.

The excursion program is almost always the same:

Tonle Sap Lake Tour Tickets
  • 9.00 – departure from Siem Reap by bus
  • 9.30 – boarding
  • 9.40-10.40 – excursion around the lake (guide – a man from the village)
  • 10.50 – visit to the fish farm
  • 11.30 – visit to the crocodile farm
  • 14.00 – return to the city

The cost of excursions in travel agencies – from $ 19.

However, you can visit Tonle Sap on your own. To do this, you need to come to the lake or the Mekong River and rent a pleasure boat from one of the villagers. It will cost about $ 5. In Cambodia, there is also the opportunity to rent a branded boat, but its cost will be much higher – about $ 25. You can get to the territory of the floating village by paying $ 1.

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Useful tips for tourists

Vietnamese begging
  1. Be prepared for Vietnamese begging. To approach a tourist and just ask for money is a common thing. The same applies to children: most often they are suitable, and, showing a snake, they ask to pay them $ 1.
  2. In the waters of the lake, they bathe, wash, empty slops and even bury the dead … Therefore, you should be prepared for the fact that the smell here is, to put it mildly, terrible. Too impressionable people should not come here: you are unlikely to like the traditions and living conditions in Cambodia.
  3. If you want to help the locals but are not ready to give them money, bring along hygiene products or home textiles
  4. Tonle Sap Lake in the rainy season
  5. It is best to visit Tonle Sap and the Mekong River during the rainy season, which lasts from June to October. At this time, the lake is full of water, and you will see much more than in the drier months.
  6. Tonle Sap is a tourist, but still a village, so you should not wear expensive and easily soiled clothes.
  7. Do not take large sums with you, because the locals will try their best to earn more. The most popular way is to persistently offer to buy a photo of Tonle Sap Lake, as a souvenir from Cambodia.
  8. Experienced travelers are advised not to go to the lake on their own – it is better to buy a tour and, accompanied by an experienced manager, will go on an excursion. The desire to save money can turn into much bigger problems.

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Tonle Sap Lake is an interesting and atypical tourist attraction. Everyone who is interested in the culture and traditions of Eastern peoples should definitely visit this colorful place.

Tonle Sap Lake is shown more clearly in the video. You can also see how the excursions go and learn some important details about visiting villages on the water.

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