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Tonle Sap Lake

Postcards From Cambodia
Boys playing volleyball in the Tonle Sap River, Kampung Phluk stilt village, Cambodia.

Life on Tonle Sap
The river is swelling during the time we went and the life on this floating village was vibrant. Locals were coming and going on their boats and as they pass they acknowledged each other. I wondered if they knew each other from living in the floating village or if it was a way of recognition from one local to another. It's when I captured this moment and really wanted to ask that question :)

Tonle Sap
This photo was taken while on a sunset boat ride on the Tonle Sap, Cambodia. The sunset created great lighting on these fabulous birds.

Off to School
If you are a student living in a floating village in Northern Cambodia, you commute to school not by bus, but by boat. Along the edges of the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia, Tonle Sap, whole villages sway with the currents. Houses, churches, small grocery stores, and of course schools are tethered to the banks. We saw these two girls early one morning as they paddled up the lake on their way to class.

Kompong Phhluk village
One of the best days I had in Cambodia was a day trip I made to Kompong Phhluk, a floating / stilt village about 40 minutes drive outside of Siem Reap.

Built in the flood plain of the Tonle Sap the houses here tower on stilts as high as 10 meters. In wet season the stilts are hidden and water laps at the floorboards.

I booked the trip through Beyond Unique Escapes (based in Siem Reap) and they were brilliant - our guide was really knowledgeable and friendly and we got to see how all the people who live in this village live their lives.

Can't recommend it enough, and you get a packed lunch included - sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves!

Flooded Forest Water Tour near Siem Reap
We said good-bye to Siem Reap and the amazing Angkor Wat Complex experience with a truly unique non-temple experience.

With our guide, we visited the water village of Kompong Phluk, boating for 2 hours over the flooded forest to the massive Tonle Sap Lake, which is 18 km wide, 300 km long and populated around its perimeter by a million people eking out their living through fishing. This lake is fed by the lifeline of SE Asia, the Mekong River (13th longest in the world), when it turns north on its journey from China, before spilling into the South China Sea.

The village has a population of 5,000 (800 families) living 30 feet above the ground on either wood or concrete stilt homes when the region is flooded. We were boating on water that was 3-4 meters (10-13 feet) above the agricultural fields below.

It was hard to imagine the life for these people with all the ups & downs, literally and figuratively! The tree canopies appearing above the water reminded us of our sunrise in the Danum Valley of Borneo (only with a floor of water versus mist), an eerie, and mystical other-world. We saw a lot of fish and shrimp traps and, unfortunately, one sign of civilization's encroachment on these otherwise primitive peoples: plastic bags caught on the limbs of the surfacing trees, as well as floating just beneath the water surface. Nonetheless, it was a magical ride through another world!

Sun sets.
The sun setting over Tonle Sap, just outside of Siam Reap in Cambodia. The tenth largest lake in the world, the expanse and the awareness that you can not see from one side to the other makes sense when you consider that it is 2700 square kilometres in size. It is strange to be on a lake that seemingly has no end.

Comprising seven villages and a populaion of over 20,000 people it is busy and bustling place in terms of human interactions as well as the rich natural diversity that saw it given UNESCO status in 1997.

With no rent to pay, living on the lake becomes an attractive proposition, despite the flood risks. The potential flood levels are clear when we see stilts over four metres above the current water level when rain season has literally just ended, and the lake can reach up to twelve metres high. Freedom is plentiful, and moving house literally involves being towed by a speed boat, speed referring to the fact that it is motorised, and motorised by a car engine, rather than any comment on its velocity.

It is far from idyllic however. Life expectancy is only 54 (compared to 62). the average househokd earns $US 500 year from fishing and tourism versus the standard individual salary of $US300 and literacy levels are only 3/4 of average at 46%. Children drag snakes and turtles from the water to try and amuse tourists, failing but killing the animal.

But when the sun drops on the quivering surface and the fresh winds skim your cheeks, you can almost believe in magic.

Tonlé Sap, Cambodia