How to Visit the Floating Villages in Siem Reap, Cambodia Ethically

Siem Reap Floating Villages - markets and houses on the Tonle Sap Lake.

You’ve seen Angkor Wat and you’ve partied on Pub Street, so what else is there to do nearby? The floating villages of Siem Reap drift on Tonlé Sap Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. 

A visit to one of the floating villages of Siem Reap can reveal how rural communities live, offering a fascinating insight into local life. However, responsible travellers should beware – some trips are very exploitative and visits can be damaging to the local communities. 

If you want to peek into an authentic Cambodian fishing community, listen up. This guide will tell you everything you need to know, from which of Siem Reap’s floating village tours really benefit the local community, to how to book and my advice for experiencing a floating village without a tour. Yep, that’s right, there are other options if you don’t want to do a day trip! 


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Visiting the Floating Villages in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Quick Answer – Which Floating Village Tour is the most ethical?

If you want to make sure your floating village visit is benefitting the local community, you should visit the floating villages of Mechrey, Kampong Khleang or Prek Toal.

These communities are actively involved in tourism and either own the boat companies or have agreements with local tour agencies. This means that when you book a tour here the money is funnelled back into the local community, maintaining facilities or funding new infrastructure.

We encourage travellers to avoid both Chong Kneas and Kampong Phluk which have been likened to ‘human zoos’.

👉 Recommended: Book your visit to Kampong Khleang Floating Village here.

Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia – An Introduction

Tonlé Sap Lake is connected to the mighty Mekong River by the Tonlé Sap River and is known for its biodiversity. While the lake is always vast, during the rainy season (June to October) it swells to six or seven times its normal size of approximately 2,700 km2

Once monsoon season starts and the water level rises, the flow of the river reverses. This creates an unusual ecosystem and makes it one of the most productive fishing lakes in the whole world. 

the expanse of Tonle Sap Lake Siem Reap Cambodia
Tonlé Sap Lake is absolutely huge!

Due to the fluctuating water levels and the abundance of fish in the lake, local communities have traded living off the land for living off the lake. This makes Tonlé Sap and the surrounding river communities culturally unique because the people live right above the water in floating villages, something which has been recognised by UNESCO.

Many of those who visit Siem Reap head out on day trips to visit the floating villages. However, not all of these visits are created equal and unethical tour experiences are rife. To make sure you have the best possible experience, not to mention a positive impact on those living in these communities, we’ve outlined the main floating villages accessible from Siem Reap below. 


The Ethics of Visiting a Floating Village 

The floating villages of Siem Reap are not your typical tourist attraction. It is important to remember that these are the homes of real people living out their day-to-day routines. You should aim to respect their privacy and be mindful of taking photos. Always ask before you take someone’s picture.  

Floating villages in Cambodia
Respect the privacy of the locals on these tours.

When you visit one of these villages as a tourist, you should make sure you know where your money is going. In some villages, Chong Kneas and Kampong Phluk for example, the local boat service is owned by a private company so none of the money that tourists spend on boat trips goes back to the local community. Red flag!

In other villages such as Kampong Khleang and Mechrey, the local boat service is owned by the community and therefore, tour money directly benefits the local people and goes towards funding local services, such as medical centres, schools and ongoing village maintenance. 


Best Time to Visit the Floating Villages of Siem Reap

The best time to visit Siem Reap’s floating villages is during the wet season, from June to October. During the dry season, parts of the lake can dry up making boat travel more challenging in some areas. 

Floating house
Cambodia’s wet season is the best time to see the floating villages.

Floating Villages in Siem Reap, Cambodia

1. Kampong Khleang Floating Village 

The picturesque village of Kampong Khleang is the largest village on Tonlé Sap Lake and is home to around 6,000 people who live in a mix of stilted and floating houses.

The boat service here is community-owned, meaning that the money you spend on a tour directly benefits those living on the lake through funding local services such as schools and medical centres. 

Helping to rid Kompong Khleang of Plastic
Kampong Khleang benefits from ethical tourism.

As well as residential dwellings, there are also floating churches, pagodas and shops.  Unlike the other villages, there are usually only a handful of visitors who arrive at the small pier daily and the village is not just some big inauthentic ‘set-up’ designed to extract money from tourists. It’s a genuine local village where real people go about their daily lives. 

As well as taking a boat trip to visit the village, you can also wander along the walkways that connect the different parts of the village; offering another perspective on the landscape. It takes around two to two and a half hours to get here from Siem Reap, but it’s well worth the longer journey for a much more authentic experience.

👉 Recommended Tour: Book your visit to Kampong Khleang through our local Cambodian travel partner here. 

2. Mechrey Floating Village 

Mechrey or ‘Mey Chrey’ is also recommended if you are looking for an ethical floating village experience. It is one of the least visited villages on Tonlé Sap Lake and has been emerging as an eco-friendly and community-based tourism destination in recent years. 

The village is not as big as Kampong Khleang and has a local feel to it – there is even a floating cemetery! You can rest assured that your tourism directly benefits the villagers as they own the boat service and use the money to fund local facilities and services. According to Cambodian-based tour company, Adventure Travel Co., operators have to ask permission from the chief of the village to run tours here. 

Mey Chrey Siem Reap Cambodia
Mechrey Floating Village is a big name on the ecotourism scene.

Like Kampong Phluk, the appearance of Mechrey changes depending on the season. Many say that it is at its prettiest during the wet season when the houses anchor themselves around a pagoda built on a small island. The village is located about an hour’s drive (25km) from Siem Reap and can be visited on a day tour. 

Most of the men living in Mechrey work in the fishing industry – this lake has been a crucial source of food for the Cambodian people dating as far back as the Angkor Empire. During the dry season, the locals split their time between farming and fishing (as well as running the odd tour for tourists). When the rains come and the waters rise, they turn exclusively to casting their nets. 

3. Prek Toal 

Another floating village that is beginning to make waves on the ethical tourism scene is Prek Toal.  Prek Toal Tours and Travel offers small local not-for-profit tours to the village and is owned by a local who is passionate about development within the community.

YouTube video

It is less well known than the other Siem Reap floating villages on this list and lies close to the mouth of Tonlé Sap on the Sangkao River. For a more immersive experience, it is possible to stay at Prek Toal homestay where you can learn firsthand about the lives of the local people. There is also the opportunity to enjoy bird watching in the nearby Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. 

Located 25km from Siem Reap, it is further out than many floating villages. As the money generated from local tours goes back into the local community, it is also a more expensive option. Tours cost around $65USD for a group of four people, however, the price per person varies depending on group size. 

4. Chong Kneas Floating Village 

The floating village of Chong Kneas has become extremely touristy over recent years, mainly because it’s the closest village to Siem Reap and the easiest to reach. It is notorious for tourist scams, overcharging and unethical tourism. 

According to travellers in our Facebook community who have made the trip, once you have paid for a boat trip to Chong Kneas (usually around $30USD at a travel agency in Siem Reap) and arrive at the boat dock, you will be asked for even more money to start the trip. This happens again and again at the stops en route.

Child beggars at Chong Kneas Floating Village, Cambodia.
Child beggars at Chong Kneas Floating Village, Cambodia.

One of the most common scams you’ll see in Chong Kneas happens when your boat stops at a local store and people try to pressure you into buying exorbitant school supplies for the local children or overly expensive rice bags (sometimes as much as $40USD!). Sadly, the money does not go to the locals and this is a well-known scam.  

There are several crocodile farms at Chong Kneas and you’re likely to be taken to one on a tour. Don’t expect an eco-visit though, hundreds of crocs are crammed together in a small area and there are often monkeys in cages and small children who shove huge water snakes in your face. An assault on the senses and not great if you are an animal lover – or have a healthy fear of serpents!

During your visit, you’re also likely to be approached by beggars, including children. Read more about begging in Asia here and why it’s not a good idea to give to begging children. 

According to those we asked on the ground, travel agencies will not offer refunds for bad experiences. Not a penny of the boat trip goes to the locals who live in the village either, it is only those in on the scam that benefit.

All in all, a visit to Chong Kneas floating village is not an authentic or pleasant experience, either for you or the people who live there. As one visitor wrote “this is one of the worst experiences. Do not go!”

5. Kampong Phluk Floating Village 

While still undoubtedly touristy, visitors to Kampong Phluk Floating Village often have a better experience than those who go to Chong Kneas. However, negative experiences still seem to be rife and many tourists report similar scams to those executed at Chong Kneas. Think $30USD ‘donation’ for school supplies and visits to an unethical crocodile farm. 

Mangrove swamps of Kampong Phluk, Cambodia.

The boat trip here costs around $20USD and is rather scenic, though pretty short, and includes a stop at a stilted restaurant for sunset. However, unfortunately, the boat service is owned by a private company, so none of the income generated by tourists goes to the people living in the village. 

The houses at Kampong Phluk are stilted, rather than floating, and the appearance of the village changes drastically changes between the wet and dry seasons. During the wet season, the surface of the water is just a few inches from the houses, but in the dry season the houses stand five metres over the ground and villagers have to climb the ladders to reach the top! 

The village takes a bit longer to get to than Chong Kneas as it is around one hour from Siem Reap and you will also visit a nearby mangrove forest. The reviews on Kampong Phluk are mixed, with some people claiming that the village is a must-see, and others claiming that the experience is like a human zoo. 


How to Visit a Floating Village Without a Tour

If you like the idea of visiting one of Siem Reap’s floating villages but baulk at the idea of a voyeuristic tour, you don’t have to miss out. Few know that the often-overlooked Siem Reap boat journey passes through a range of floating villages en route to its destination of Battambang. 

Floating villages outside Siem Reap
Seeing the floating villages from the slow boat is a novel experience!

Passengers will weave their way past Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap and follow the Sangkao River for upwards of five hours. During this time, you’ll journey through a range of floating villages including Khum Koh Chiveang, where it is not possible to visit as part of a tour. 

“The floating villages that I passed through on my way to Battambang hummed with energy. Children waved from floating houses, truly surprised to see foreigners passing through and the smell of freshly barbecued fish wafted in the wind. Seeing the fishermen work to secure the day’s catch and the ladies of the village washing clothes offered a real insight into how these floating communities live day to day.”

Of course, when you are traversing through floating villages as a way of getting from A to B, it is important to remember that you are not paying to visit. Do your bit to help the local community by buying lunch, water and snacks at the floating restaurant en route. 

Slow boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia
The Siem Reap-Battambang boat.

The boat trip costs around $30USD and the trip takes between six and nine hours depending on the season and the number of breakdowns that happen en route.

👉 Read more about the Siem Reap-Battambang boat here.


What to Bring On a Floating Village Tour

  • Collapsible water bottle
  • Packable waterproof jacket
  • Camera/mobile phone
  • Travel sickness tablets
  • Sun protection
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Small change
The muddy road to the floating village.
The roads to the floating village can be dusty – bring sunglasses!

Wanting to visit one of the many floating villages close to Siem Reap is completely understandable. After all, for many of us, this is a completely different way of life! However, it is important to remember the importance of responsible travel – no one should be exploited in your quest to see how different people live.

To avoid financing any unethical practices, it is important to choose your floating village and tour wisely. Kampong Khleang, Mechrey and Prek Toal all come highly recommended by members of the South East Asia Backpacker community who value their community-owned ethos.


Contributors:

South East Asia Backpacker is a ‘travel diary for everyone’. This article has been written with the help of backpackers and local experts. We would like to thank…

🙏 Staff | Noni Tree Hostel
🙏 Marsha Barnes
🙏 Jen Seiser
🙏 Jay Adventure | 
Adventure Travel Co.
🙏 South East Asia Backpacker Community

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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