Monday, June 30, 2008

Lake Tonle Sap Cambodia

Lake Tonle Sap Cambodia (Boeung Tonle Sap), Great Lake of Cambodia

Lake Tonle Sap Cambodia (Boeung Tonle Sap), Great Lake of Cambodia

tonle sap cambodia

Water dwelling on the lake of Tonle Sap near Siem Reap

The largest fresh water lake of Southeast Asia

Lakes especially the large ones have the power to influence the life style of the people who live around it by giving them food, water and transportation. But few lakes have influenced the life of almost three million people to such a great magnitude like Lake Tonle Sap located right at the heart of Cambodia. Lake Issyk Kul of Kyrgyzstan is a similar one but only a distant second!

How was it formed?

tonle sap lake combodia map

Map of Tonle Sap Lake and its floodplain

Scientists have an answer to any question asked; one version may vary with other ‘school of thought’ is another thing! They (the geologists) say that once- that is millions of years back- a tectonic plate bearing the Indian sub-continent (on which the present day nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc are located) moved towards the Asian plate and clashed giving birth to a tremendous stress in which meadows became mountains and plains deep depressions; like what happens when two cars collide! The Himalayan Ranges that bears Mount Everestthe highest peak in the world is the creation of that great upheaval. When Himalaya went up; the Cambodian portion declined water rushed in to fill it; that is the great Tonle Sap Lake the boon of Cambodia!

The real great lake!

lake tonle sap map

Lake Tonle Sap Location in Cambodia

Geography teaches us that the Great Lakes are located in the North American Continent but a Cambodian will ‘shout’ to differ; for him it is the ‘Boeung Tonle Sap’ that is great. Not because that the word Tonle Sap means great lake (large fresh water river) in Khmer language but Lake Tonle Sap is much more than a big lake; it is the bread donor to 3 million Cambodians, 75% of inland fish that nation gets is from Tonle Sap, sixty percent of the protein intake Cambodians get is from nowhere else but Tonle Sap the fish-rich and great lake.


Cambodia is a medium sized nation in Southeast Asia (area 181035 sq km) with a population of about 15 million. Its culture is mainly based on Khmer civilization that has its roots in ancient Hindu, Buddha, Thai, Javanese, Chinese cultures. Its architecture, arts, dance, music, magnificent temples like that of Angkor Watetc all are proofs for its association with old Hindu culture. The staple diet of Cambodians is rice and the lacustrine area nourished by the rich sediments of the lake in fact forms the rice-bowl of Cambodia which has only 13% of agriculture land of the total area (63% of area comprises of forests).

Tonle Sap River a two-way valve

Lake Tonle Sap is a combined system including a strange river (River Tonle Sap) that acts as a two way valve between River Mekong and Tonle Sap Lake. This river meets River Mekong at Chaktomuk opposite to Phnom pen. In summer ice on the mountains melts and River Mekong gets flooded; that time River Tonle Sap take the nutrient rich flood water to the lake. Same time during monsoon time when the Mekong is weak River Tonle Sap does the reverse flow taking water from the lake to Mekong River; about 50% of Mekong’s water during summer is sourced from Lake Tonle Sap. This water is not plain water it is rich in freshly hatched fish from the Tonle Sap flood plain; for nutrients received fish returned.

A river, lake, flood-plain, forest; combine


lake of Tonle Sapimage courtesy:

During summer this lake shrinks to just 2,700 sq km in area; at that time water from Mekong carried by River Tonle Sap is its only source; where as during monsoon it gets filled to the brim making it swell to the tune of 16,000 sq km! At this time all the surrounding areas including forests get inundated and they turn in to a rich hatchery for all sorts of fresh water fish making it the most productive inland natural fish-breeding area in the world. About 100 varieties of birds, two hundred varieties of fish along with amphibians multiply during this time. When Mekong is weak all this fish and beings are released along with water.


The Tonle Sap Lake of Cambodia is the largest fresh water body of Southeast Asia in area but it is comparatively shallow with a depth of one meter during summer but during monsoon its water level reaches to 9 meters and discharges huge quantity of water that is flooded with freshly bred fish in to the Tonle Sap River and then to River Mekong. This river-lake-flood-plain system combined with seasonally flooding forests is the last refuge of a unique eco system that is home to thousands of rare plants, birds, fish and amphibians of which many are in the endangered list; hence this biosphere has been listed by the UNESCO as ‘ecological hotspot’ since 1997.

Chong Khneas; the village that floats

lake tonle sap

Young boy from Tonlé Sap Combodia

The lake is about 15 km from the town Seam Reap; one can take a ferry from Phnom Penh and travel through the scenic lake and can visit the strange village Chong Khneas that floats on the lake waters! Houses, shops, schools, gas stations, flower and fruit gardens all float on the serene lake water (they even raise farms on these floating structures). When lake’s water level rises the village also rises along with; when lake recedes the vice versa! No flooding of homes or farmlands because all float.

There are more villages that look like floating like Chong Khneas but they use stilted structures that seem to float during monsoon but the stilts get exposed during summer when lake water recedes.

Chong Khneas attracts many tourists because of this particular feature; perhaps the present status of this lake itself is due to this floating village. Tourism has brought in jobs and money to the villagers and facilities to cater to the needs of tourists also has changed the shape and texture of the village.

Its people

tonle sap people

Young Girl from Tonlé Sap Combodia

The residents of Chong Khneas and other floating villages are mostly Vietnamese and Cham People. The Cham People are considered to have descended from Malay and Polynesian stocks; they own a history as the part of the 7th to 15th century Champa Kingdom existed in the present Vietnam. The language they speak is called Cham. It is needless to say their main occupation is fishing but bamboo basket making and catering to the needs of the numerous tourists who visit their village also is a source of income. Large fish traps floating houses, schools, farms, and gas stations dot the entire village and present a view to the visitor to remember.

Kampong Phluk and Kampong Khleang

Surrounding the lake are numerous villages as the lake’s water level varies these villages live in stilted houses (houses that are built on large poles up to 10 meters in height. Kampong Phluk is a cluster of three villages surrounded by mangrove forests; it has a population of around 3000 people and can be accessed from Siem Reap. Kampong Khleang is another such village that is flooded with stilted houses. When the lake dry up these people come down and live in temporary cottages built on the ground and return to the stilt when lake gets flooded. The main occupation is fishing and shrimp farming; these villages are not frequently visited by tourists as Chong Khneas.

Preservation of ecology

The Cambodian government and numerous agencies are keen to protect the unique eco-system that prevails around the lake. There is one bird sanctuary in Prek Toal located in the core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve; it is Asia’s largest breeding area for large water-birds that are globally threatened. Spot billed pelican, painted stork, greater adjuncts, grey headed fish eagle all are found in abundance in this 31282 hectare wide reserve.

Inexpensive destination

lake tonle sap combodia

An old man rows a boat on the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

This reserve can be visited from Seam Reap town through boat. Moat Khla Biosphere Reserve area another one is located between Boeung Tonle Chma (another smaller lake located in the middle of the eastern shore of the lake) and Tonle Sap.

Stung Sen Biosphere Reserve is located in the southwestern part of the lake. Birds are in abundance during summer but the hitch is as lake water has receded boating becomes difficult but there are packages for tourists that include combined boating and trekking tours under guidance for nominal fees.

Cambodia is an economically backward country and hotels and other amenities are relative very cheap. A two hour boat ride from Siem Reap covering destinations including the floating village costs less than 10 dollars!

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