Tonle Sap Lake offers the chance to see a different side of Siem Reap aside from Angkor’s temples. It is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia with a unique cultural landscape and eco-system covering 7,400 square miles when it floods. The Lake is the richest fishing lake in the world, resulting in the emergence of floating villages whose residents make a living from the rich waters of Tonle Sap. A floating village is just like any other village on land, complete with houses, schools, markets and businesses – except that it rises and falls with Tonle Sap!
Not many tourists come here because it is 55km east of Siem Reap requiring 1.5 hours of travel on an uneven dirt road for some parts. Due to its distance, Kampong Khleang remains untouched by commercialisation. The six of us were the only visitors that day!
Kampong Khleang is a sprawling community of about 1,800 families or 6,000 total residents living in houses built on very tall stilts, while others live on floating platforms (pontoons) that “go with the flow” of Tonle Sap.
Our visit became somewhat of a novelty, especially when we were armed with goodies for the children. We attracted a small following and were made to feel welcomed with lots of friendly smiles, waves and enthusiastic hellos. At no time did anyone ask for money or try to sell something to us. Most of the residents carried on with what they were doing and didn’t seem to mind when we stopped to photograph them. Our tour guide played the role of interpreter and this helped a lot in our interactions with the residents in getting a first-hand account of life on water.
We stopped by at one of Kampong Khleang’s schools to distribute some supplies. Our visit was unexpected and the children were in the middle of their lessons when we walked into their classrooms. They were thrilled to receive stationery sets, bubble straws, sweets and titbits. These are children from the floating village who walk, cycle or paddle boats to school everyday, depending on the water levels.
Life for the residents is hard. Everyday is a fight for survival. They are desperately poor and their primary concern is to fulfil their basic needs for food and shelter. Their existence and livelihood are determined by Tonle Sap, whose water levels can rise between 20 feet to 40 feet high.
In order to survive, they build houses on giant stilts along the banks of the lake – sometimes as high as 30 feet. The residents get in and out by long wooden ladders.
Children as young as 4 years old are very nimble at going up and down the steep wooden stairs without any hand rails. No one seems to be worried that they might just accidentally slip between the steps and fall into the water! This fear only exists for urbanites like us!
Other people live on boats, or floating pontoons. So when the flood waters rise, their houses rise right with it. Whole families live in one room and cooking stoves, general stores, schools and even medical clinics can be seen floating along.
Interestingly, there is a class divide between the inhabitants of stilt houses and the floating village people. Those living in stilt houses are considered to be of “higher class” even though they are just simple one-room huts. However, when the water levels of Tonle Sap rise during the rainy season, the floating villagers have the advantage of being able to “rise” to the occasion, whereas water can come right up to the floorboards of the stilted houses and even partially submerge them!
After two hours walking in Kampong Khleang, we boarded a private open-top motorised boat for a ride to the open waters of Tonle Sap lake to catch the sunset. A good thing about Kampong Khleang is that the boat service is still owned and operated by the locals, which means that every dollar spent on the boat trip goes back to the community.
It is only when the boat navigates away from the stilt houses and makes its way through the waterway that you see several dozens of wooden houses floating on the river. There are small gardens, house pets and pigs out on balconies, as well as bicycles and motorbikes parked inside the floating houses.
People dry their laundry on their floating homes, burn cooking fires and bathe in the lake. They cultivate fish farms contained in water, haul in catches with huge nets, sun-dry them and go to the next town to sell their catch. The water also serves as a huge playground for children who paddle canoes or amuse themselves in buckets around the river banks.