Tonle Sap, located in central Cambodia, is southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake; the world’s richest fishing lake as well. During monsoon season it expands to cover more than twice the surface area of Singapore. The lake is home to multiple floating villages; due to it’s regular expansion and contraction, its inhabitants are nomadic by nature. I went to experience it for myself on Klook’s Great Tonle Sap Lake Tour.
The car picked me up from my hostel at 7:15am; we headed out of town. We stopped off at a local market along the way to grab some snacks for the trip; and to take a look at the fish being sold by dozens of vendors – fish that were all caught in the lake we were about to explore.
We made one more pit-stop on the way out to Tonle Sap, at one of the many roadside vendors selling sticky rice and black bean cakes, which were made inside of large bamboo shoots. A few Khmer women were making them fresh on-the-spot; the process of husking the charred bamboo shafts looked pretty cool so I sat down amongst them; the women were kind enough to let me give it a go.
The bamboo was hot; I was slow. The women finished about three each by the time that I finished one; we all had a good laugh at my apparent lack of progress. One of the women relieved me of my “duties” and gave me a cake to eat instead. It was warm, chewy, and delicious.
We jumped back on the road and finished driving out to Tonle Sap. It’s currently the dry season; many houses on the approach were built on up to 10m stilts – it’s hard to imagine that during monsoon the water levels could top out that high.
Our car finally arrived at the docks, where a boat was waiting. My guide and I hopped aboard; off we went. The boat’s 16 year old driver led us through the river, which was lined with small huts, fishing vessels and rice fields. There were small children playing alongside the waterfront; families cruising through on their way to or fro the floating village, and lots of men – and boys – tending nets.
Many of Cambodia’s poorest residents live on the lake; understandably, most of their livelihood comes from fishing. The system is their lifeblood – but it’s also responsible for many of their hardships. The floating villages are forced to move with each season. Many families living there cannot afford motor boats so navigation through the massive body is achieved by human power. Clean water for drinking is hard to come by (an estimated half of the entire Cambodian population does not have access to clean drinking water; living on the lake provides easy access so many neglect to treat the water – often drinking directly from the lake itself; it’s no wonder that more than a one-third of Cambodian deaths are the result of water-borne illnesses.)
Despite the lake-dwellers’ hardships, it was easy to see why many would choose to call this place their home. The lake was beautiful. Oftentimes the horizons would disappear – water and sky blended together in a perfect dreamscape. Light subtly reflected off the surface creating a calm mirror-like effect. I can only imagine how beautiful sunsets over the surface would be.
Each local person we passed greeted me with a genuine smile; exploring the lake was a beautiful reminder that happiness comes not from wealth or material possessions, but from community and time spent in nature. It’s easy to get caught up in our own struggles, but witnessing the hardships – and happiness of others’ firsthand was a reminder to not take the comfort of our daily lives for granted.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.