floating village cambodia river trip

Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake & Floating Villages


Exploring Southeast Asia’s largest lake, a food source for millions

It began with my mother and a lecture about the Mekong River at Denver University. It ended with me on a riverboat in Cambodia, gliding past floating villages on my way to Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the Tonlé Sap.

But back to my mother. She had come to visit me in Denver, and in my search for interesting outings, I came across several lectures at the School of International Studies. I perused the options: Mekong River, why not. And so we sat in a lecture hall listening to Brian Eyler, author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong,  as he led us on an imaginary float down the 4300-kilometer river, through Myanmar, Thailand, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia and Vietnam. 

longtail boat mekong river laos
A longtail boat on the Mekong River in Laos

Brian began where the Mekong does, at its headwaters in China’s Tibetan Plateau.  More than half of the Mekong is located in China where it has long been known as the Lancang. Until recently, many Chinese officials still claimed it was an entirely different river from the Mekong. It was a way to refute that any problems with the Mekong in neighboring countries downstream, were related to China’s dams. 

Brian lived and worked in China for 15 years. Now, he is the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington where he researches Mekong sustainability. He also consults with Asian governments as they try to balance economic growth with conservation, and protection of the Mekong Basin. His project, the Mekong Dam Monitor measures and reports on the impact of dams in China, Lao and Thailand, on the rest of the region. 

His talk led us from China’s Yunnan province and into the golden triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar and Lao meet.  Here we would have had to abandon our pretend raft and continue overland. A broad waterfall marks the Lao and Cambodia border.

mekong river luang prabang laos
Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Lao

Mighty Mekong River

He explained that in Lao, the Mekong is crucial to transportation, and so the river is dotted with colorful longtail boats which ferry children to school, and farmers use to take goods to market. Brian spoke next of Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake, which he referred to as the heart of life in the entire Mekong Delta. 

I had heard of the Tonlé Sap, but knew little about it.  It is Southeast Asia’s largest lake and produces fish on a remarkable scale thanks to its unique hydrological cycle.  During the monsoon season, so much water floods the Mekong that the connected Tonlé Sap river reverses direction and sends water back into the lake, causing its footprint to swell by five times. 

Our imaginary journey ended in Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, where the river is crowded with traders and farmers. The population density here is five times that of the rest of the river.

brian eyler mekong river

More than 70 million people live in these combined areas known as the Mekong Basin. Some are in cities, but most are in rural areas and entirely dependent on the river for their livelihood; the typical person either fishes or farms, earning an income of about $800 a year.  Brian told the stories of some of these people, and the ways in which they were having to adapt to new realities on the river. 

By the end of the lecture, my mother was ready for lunch and I was ready for a trip to Southeast Asia. We each bought a copy of Brian’s book and lined up to have them signed.  I thanked Brian for his fascinating talk and asked him a couple of questions about travel in the region. He was very gracious and gave me several travel tips. He handed me the signed book and I glanced at the inscription:  “May this book and your journeys to the Mekong inspire you to keep it mighty.” 

colourful boats tonle sap cambodia
Colorful boats on Tonlé Sap River, Cambodia

A Trip To Southeast Asia & the Tonlé Sap

It’s funny how an idea smoldering quietly in the background  – maybe someday I will return to Southeast Asia – can ignite. The timing of the lecture was perfect; my friend Clemencia had recently moved to Hong Kong and we had talked of meeting to travel in Cambodia. Fast forward five months, several flights, and other assorted modes of transport, and I was in a boat, on a river in Cambodia. It was my first visit to Southeast Asia in more than 25 years!

monks on tonle sap river
Monks celebrate the Pchum Ben Festival on the Tonlé Sap river

Tonlé Sap River & a Buddhist Festival

The scene on the river that day was even more lively and colorful than I had imagined during Brian’s lecture. The Pchum Ben festival was underway, a 15-day event when Cambodian Buddhists pay respect to their deceased ancestors. Cambodians filled colorful boats, and gathered in large groups, at the river’s floating restaurants.  We passed a group of monks smiling and taking photos on a large two-story boat. The orange of their robes were especially vibrant against the lush green forest at the water’s edge.

My guide, Mr. Barung said the colorful stilted houses we passed were built to withstand water levels that fluctuate by up to eight meters between the dry and monsoon seasons. It was September, and their stairs were half submerged. Most had boats tied to the front. By November this river would begin draining back to the Mekong, and by April, fall to its lowest point, at the peak of the dry season.

stilted houses kampong phluk
Stilted homes adapt to changing water levels on the Tonle Sap

Flooded Mangroves Amidst Tonle Sap Floating Villages

We continued on into an area of mangrove forests. The trees were half submerged by the monsoon flooding. I commented on the height of the water in the forest, and Mr. Barung shook his head. In fact, it was two meters lower than last year and that was a problem, he said. These forests grow in a belt around much of the giant Tonlé Sap lake.  When the lake expands, the forests are flooded, creating an ecosystem.  The water becomes rich with sediment, an ideal breeding ground for fish. Less flooding means less fish. I was seeing the effects of the dams that Brian Eyler monitors, upstream in China, Thailand and Lao. 

flooded mangrove tonle sap cambodia
Flooded mangrove forest on the Tonlé Sap

Cambodians consume an average of 75 kgs of fish per year, which is around 60% of their total protein source. A part of that is the ubiquitous prahok, a fermented fish paste created from the tiny trey riel, also known as the money fish. They are the most abundant fish in the lake and the protein-packed paste is widely consumed, as a condiment and ingredient in Cambodian cooking. 

Flooding also impacts farming. The more land that is flooded, the more fertile area for planting crops of rice, beans, eggplant and melon.  This seasonal flooding has always been significant to life here. In 10th century Cambodia, seasonal flooding enabled the Khmer Empire to flourish  –  flood cycles provided the bountiful rice crops which fed armies. 

children play at village temple kampong phluk
The temple in Kampong Phluk, built on high ground to avoid flooding

Kampong Phluk, Toné Sap Floating Village

We stopped at a Tonlé Sap village called Kampong Phluk where children ran around an open-air temple which faced the river. It was built on higher ground than the rest of the village, high enough to remain a dry place to gather year round, even when the rest of the village is flooded and “floating”. 

From the temple walked through the village on a dirt road that should have been underwater. It was lined with stilted houses with tall steps. Normally, the water level would reach high on the steps, and we would be exploring the village by boat. But the steps were dry.

visit to kampong phluk village
Water levels were lower than normal, the step I'm sitting on should have been under water

People were busy at work in the village, despite the steamy temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. Boats were being repaired and a man in a straw hat and brightly-colored shirt was covering shrimp traps with tar to keep them from rusting. Shrimping is also a significant livelihood here. 

shrimp fisherman kampong phluk
Fishing is the primary livelihood of villagers; this man covers his shrimp traps in tar

We left the village and continued along the river. When we arrived at the mouth of the Tonlé Sap lake, the wind picked up and choppy waves slapped the front of the boat, sending a spray of water into the air. In the Khmer language, tonlé means fresh water and sap is lake. About 90% of Cambodia’s population are Khmer. 

Within five minutes we were out in the open water, no shore visible on the other side. I am from Toronto and so have spent time on the Great Lakes that separate Canada and the United States – they felt similar to this, wild like an ocean. Mr. Barung pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me our location – we were a little blue dot at the edge of Southeast Asia’s largest lake. 

It's only 10 meters deep, but Tonlé Sap Lake feeds millions of people in Southeast Asia

Tonlé Sap Lake

I looked down at the murky water dotted with floating patches of green water hyacinth.  I remembered Brian Eyler talking about the fish. The lake is only 10 meters deep, but there are over 100 species of fish here. Some of the larger species are now gone. 

Demand for electricity is growing in this region and dams have provided an answer. Brian Eyler is working with stakeholders in China, Thailand and Lao, to help them come up with alternative plans to meet this need. Wind and solar are being developed, which is hopeful.  

Unlike the mostly two-way traffic on the river, boats moved in all directions through the open lake.  Water slapped at the front of the boat as it bumped along the choppy water.  We noticed a small boat coming toward us and our driver slowed.  We waved them in, and the boat pulled alongside us. I saw it was filled with packaged food: crackers, soup, candy, fruit –  it was a floating grocery store. 

tonle sap lake floating grocery
Susan Heinrich buying cookies from a floating grocery on Tonlé Sap Lake

The proprietor was a young woman with a broad blue hat, and cheeks flushed from the wind.  She had her two children with her who seemed quite content eating snacks at the bow. I bought a package of Oreo cookies for Mr. Barung and our driver. 

Mr. Barung acted as a translator as we chatted. We took a photo together, and she spent a few minutes bailing water from the low boat as it bobbed slowly in the water.  She started the motor and turned the nose of the boat into the choppy waves, raising her arm to wave goodbye.  

grocery boat tonle sap lake
A windy day on Tonlé Sap Lake necessitates some bailing

Since we were stopped, I handed my camera to Mr. Barung, and moved up to sit the front of the boat. I wanted a photo with the vast Tonlé Sap Lake, a picture to send to my mother.  It was the least I could do, to thank her for a visit, which led to a lecture, that sparked an interest in a great lake in Cambodia – the heart of life for millions of people.

Susan Heinrich on Cambodia's tonlé sap lake
From a lecture in Denver to a boat on Cambodia's Tonlé Sap Lake


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