A favourite and lesser-known stop while travelling Southeast Asia is the Tonlé Sap Lake of Cambodia. This UNESCO heritage site recognises the largest freshwater lake in the entire Asian region. If you happen to be visiting the famous Temples of Angkor, this is an exciting day trip excursion from Siem Reap!
Naturally, this destination is unique because of the water composition. Fresh and saltwater tributaries reverse the directions of their water flow at various times of the year creating an unlikely ecosystem. Culturally, this destination is unique because of the way it’s people live – right above the water in floating villages.
The Changing Nature of the Tonlé Sap Lake
The largest lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonlé Sap, is connected to the mighty Mekong River by the Tonlé Sap River. While the lake is always large, during the rainy season (May to October in Cambodia) it swells to six or seven times its normal size of approximately 2,600 square kilometres.
Incredibly, the flow reverses depending on the time of year, so when the dry season comes it begins to drain back to its normal size. Due to the fluctuating nature of the lake and the ever-expanding and decreasing shoreline, locals have learnt to adapt. Their solution has been to design floating villages.
Tonlé Sap Lake Floating Villages
There are various floating villages that can be visited from Siem Reap on a day tour. Some definitely provide a more worthwhile visit than others and it’s definitely worth doing your research in order to avoid an unpleasant and over-touristic experience! Unfortunately, there are also some long-running travel scams that you should know about and aim to avoid!
Ethical Floating Village Tours
The floating villages of Siem Reap are not your typical tourist attraction. Real people live out their day-to-day lives here and it’s important to respect their privacy and make sure that your visit to the floating village is not an invasion into the villager’s space.
Another important point to make is that when you visit one of these villages as a tourist, you should make sure that you know where your money goes. In some of the villages (Chong Kneas and Kompong Phluk for example), the local boat service is owned by a private company and so none of the money that tourists spend on boat trips actually goes back to the local community.
In other villages (Kompong Khleang and Mey Chrey), the local boat service is owned by the community and therefore, the money trickles through to the local people and goes towards paying for local services, such as medical centres, schools and the ongoing maintenance of the village.
Here’s the lowdown on which villages to visit, which to completely avoid and some recommended companies that run ethical tours to the villages…
Chong Kneas Floating Village – Avoid
- Notorious for tourist scams, overcharging and unethical tourism.
- Tourist money goes directly to private boat company.
The floating villages 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. Just a quick glance at all of the terrible ‘one star reviews’ of the village on Trip Advisor and you will understand what I mean! According to travellers who visit there, the water is brown, smelly and downright unhealthy and the whole village has become notorious for travel scams and a place to avoid at all costs.
Once you have paid for a boat trip to Chong Kneas (usually around $30 US 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, and then more at each of the various stops that you are taken to. Travel agencies do not offer refunds and pretty much everyone from the tuk-tuk driver to the boat driver is in on the scam. The money for the boat trip almost certainly goes straight to a private company, with not a penny going to the poor locals of the village.
One of the most common scams that happens in Chong Kneas is for your boat to stop at a “local store” where you will be forced to by overly-expensive rice bags or school supplies for the local children. (This is a well-known scam and the money will not go to the local children if you buy any goods.) Do not do it! There are also many beggars who will approach you during your visit; both adults and children. Read more about begging in Asia here and why it’s not a good idea to give to begging children.
Aside from the unethical crocodile farms where you’ll see hundreds of crocodiles crammed together in a small area, you will see monkeys in cages and small children who shove huge water snakes in your face and ask you for “one dollar” to take a photo. The village is also famous for its abundance of Korean restaurants which cater to the Korean tourists who visit daily. All in all, not a very authentic or pleasant experience at all.
As one visitor wrote on TripAdvisor: “This is the worst place in Cambodia”. After reading these reviews – perhaps we should add Chong Kneas to our worst places in Southeast Asia list?
Kompong Phluk Floating Village – Mixed Reviews
- Less touristy experience, mangrove forests and stilted houses.
- Tourist money still goes directly to private boat company.
While still undoubtedly touristy, visitors to Kompong Phluk Floating Village will have a much better experience that those who go to Chong Kneas. Thankfully, you won’t find any crocodile farms, kids with snakes or monkeys in cages here and there are fewer beggars. The boat trip here costs $20 US and is rather scenic, though pretty short, and includes a stop at a stilted restaurant for sunset. However, unfortunately, like with Chong Kneas, the boat service is owned by a private company and so none of the income generated by tourists goes to the people of the village.
The houses at Kompong Phluk are actually stilted, rather than floating, and the appearance of the village changes drastically changes between wet and dry season. During the wet season, the surface of the water is just a few inches from the houses, but in dry season the houses stand five-metres tall above the ground and villagers have to climb the ladders to reach the top! The village also has pretty mangrove forests which you will float through on any given boat trip.
The village takes a bit longer to get to than Chong Kneas, around one hour from Siem Reap, but you are guaranteed a better experience. The reviews on TripAdvisor are mixed, with some people claiming that the village is a must see, and others claiming that the experience is a bit like a human zoo. We can only imagine that guests from various travel agencies are taken to different parts of the village. For those travellers looking for a more ethical floating village experience, there are better options…
Kampong Khleang Floating Village – Recommended
- Beautiful, fewer crowds and floating houses as far as the eye can see.
- Community Owned: Tourist money goes to the local people who own the boat service.
The picturesque village of Kompong Khleang is a world away from Chong Kneas and Kompong Phluk. It is actually the largest village on the lake (more of a medium-sized town really), that’s home to about 6,000 people who live on stilted houses above the water stretching out as far as the eye can see. It’s a pretty incredible sight! The town is a mix of stilted houses and floating raft houses, as well as floating schools, pagodas and medical centres. Some of the floating neighbourhoods of the village literally move along the Tonlé Sap Lake as the seasons change.
Unlike the other villages, there are usually only a handful of visitors who arrive on the small pier daily and the village is not just some big inauthentic ‘set-up’ designed to extract money from tourists, rather 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 for quite some distance along the various walkways that connect the various parts of the village; the temples and the houses.
The reason that Kompong Khleang is one of the best floating villages to visit, is that the boat service here is owned by the local people, rather than a private travel company. So, when you spend money on a boat trip here, the money is going directly to the villagers and helping to maintain the local services. You can reach the village by tuk-tuk or by booking a local tour. 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. “Fascinating” as many of the TripAdvisor reviews claim.
Recommended Tour to Kompong Khleang – Triple A Adventures
A fun and interesting way to visit Kompong Khleang Village from Siem Reap is on this Floating Village and Cycle Tour with local travel company, Triple A Adventures Cambodia. The tour costs $49 USD and includes a boat tour of the floating village, a flooded forest and a pagoda on an island, as well as cycling in off the beaten countryside around Kompong Khleang and a local lunch! On this trip, you will also get to visit the Vietnamese floating village where Vietnamese refugees have made their home in a village that moves with the tides. The trip is a fun and ethical way to experience an authentic local village where the local community will benefit from the tourism.
Mechrey Floating Village – Also Recommended
- Least visited village on Tonlé Sap Lake.
- Community Owned: Tourist money goes to the local people who own the boat service.
Mechrey or “Mey Chrey” is another village that is recommended if you are looking for an ethical floating village experience. It is one of the least visited villages on the Tonlé Sap and has been emerging as an eco-friendly and community based tourism destination in recent years. The village is not as big as Kompong Khleang and has a very local feel where your tourism directly benefits the villagers’ as the boat service is owned by the community. The village has been called a ‘hidden gem’ by travellers on TripAdvisor.
Like Kompong Phluk, the appearance of Mey Chrey village 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, which you can read about below…
Recommended Tour to Mey Chrey – Adventure Travel Co.
We went on the Sunset Floating Village Tour to Mey Chrey with Adventure Travel Co. which we had seen recommended in the South East Asia Backpacker Facebook Group as one of the most ethical floating village tours available. Adventure Travel Co. are partnered with Lub d Hostel in Siem Reap, where my partner and I stayed for a few days while we did the tour and a few other things in the city. (For travellers heading to Siem Reap, Lub d is a great choice and the staff there can help you to organise many other interesting excursions in Siem Reap, aside from the obvious Angkor Wat – which they can help you with too!).
Unlike some of the other companies, Adventure Travel Co. ask for permission to visit from the chief of the village, rather than just intruding. As the village and the boat service are community owned, the village directly benefits from tourists visiting Mey Chrey. The villagers were very pleased to see us there from what we could tell!
The Sunset Floating Village tour with Adventure Travel Co. costs just $21 USD a person which includes transport, a guide, and snacks. The trip runs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings. There’s a minimum of 5 people needed in order to run the trip, but if you’re a solo traveller, you can join on the set days that they have tours. The $21 USD includes paying a local village boat driver (includes tips), a guide (who translates for you) as well as tipping the villagers that live there.
We absolutely loved the trip to Mey Chrey because the setting was beautiful (even though it was a super cloudy day), and the village felt completely off the beaten track. It was a real slice of the day to day village life of Cambodia. Below, you can read an account of our afternoon floating village tour… Highly recommended and great for a backpacker’s budget!
Sunset Floating Village Tour – The Day’s Itinerary
We were picked up from Lub d hostel at 2:30 pm. Since we were there in the low season (May), there were only four of us in the group. During the high season, they usually have more people and will take a minibus, but we were in a car instead.
Our guide was Dorn, a local Cambodian who grew up near the lake. While he didn’t grow up in one of the houses on the floating village, he grew up next to the lake and was very familiar with the area and lake culture. He told us many stories, his favourite stories being what it is like to take care of a water buffalo.
Apparently, local people near the lake love to own a water buffalo because they can ride them through the water. They let them roam free near the lake during dry season. When I asked how you find them, he said, “you can tell which one is yours by the horns. Once you are around them long enough you can tell the difference.” I’m 99% sure I’d lose my water buffalo!
Once we had picked the two other travellers up from another hostel, we headed straight to the market where Dorn picked out some snacks for us. He grabbed fresh fruit and told us he was going to get some crickets. After he saw the looks on our faces, he decided to get rice and black beans cooked in bamboo instead! I definitely recommend this local snack – it was delicious. Once we had our snacks, we were off to the floating village!
The trip by car is about an hour long during the dry season. Dorn said it’s shorter during rainy season because the lake is larger, and you can get to the boat dock faster. I assume that during the rainy season you spend more time travelling by boat than car. The drive wasn’t bad, although the roads were pretty rough! So, if you get car sick easily, you might want to bring some motion sickness tablets. Also, you don’t really have access to a bathroom on the tour, so make sure that you go in advance.
When we visited the floating village, it had rained the night before – pretty hard. It wasn’t quite rainy season yet, so we still had to drive to the far dock, but the roads had gotten pretty muddy. As a result, we had to pull the car over and wait for about 40 minutes, while they sent the boat down a small channel in order to get to the main dock. The tour takes you to a pretty rural area in Cambodia, so you need to be ready to be flexible and roll with the punches.
Once you get to the small docking area, you will head out to the village. The boats are relatively small and can hold up to maybe 9 to 10 people We had a total of 7 people, Dorn, the four us on the tour, and two locals boat drivers.
The Boat Trip to the Floating Village
It doesn’t take long to get to the village, maybe about 15-20 minutes on the boat through a low channel only a couple of feet deep and about five feet wide. Once we got to the actual lake, we entered the floating village and saw the makeshift houses, each with their own quirky character…
The floating houses mainly take one of two forms. They are either stilted houses, built intentionally high enough to outlast the rising waters of the lake, or villages consist of floating platform houses anchored in place. Both styles of floating villages can be found on the lake.
Most of the village people are fisherman because 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), but when the rains come and the waters rise, they turn exclusively to casting their nets.
Upon entering the lake, the first thing you will pass is a “dock,” which is really more like a collection of boats docked on the shore and a small gathering of huts on the mainland. This is the small market where the locals sell their fish and buy their vegetables from the mainlanders.
Next, you will pass one of the largest structures in the village, a small school. It’s white with blue painted doors and windows. Here is where the village kids can go to primary school. They take little boats to school themselves and, due to the small number of classrooms, have to alternate what days they go to school. On average, the kids get an hour of English a week on top of their other studies.
After you pass the school, you will ride on through the rest of the village. This is where you will have some of the best photo opportunities. We saw small boats filled with snacks and food -as close as you get to 7-11 out here! There were also women floating around while grilling traditional looking street food. They would paddle from house to house offering dinner to the families of the village.
On the tour, our guide explained to us the normal day of a fisherman consists of getting up around 3 am to gather their fish. Then, they would travel about 30 minutes by boat inland to a small outcropping of huts. Here, locals from the city would come to buy fish and sell vegetables from the mainland to the fisherman. Most of the floating village residents make a trip into the city about 1 to 2 times a month to buy clothes and other household goods.
The small village was bustling with life. All of the locals were out making dinner and bathing their kids. We were definitely surprised to see how many of the families had little dogs. When we asked Dorn about it, he told us that they function as a natural alarm system when the family is out. The houses were both rugged and beautiful. Several had small gardens with potted plants and flowers really adding to the simple charm of the floating village.
Once we passed through the village, they pulled the boat over to observe a small herd of water buffalo and for us to ask Dorn questions about the village. He also busted out the snacks for us to eat while we talked. Normally, this would be when you get your amazing sunset photos, but unfortunately, when we went it was super overcast and dark. Luckily, the water buffalo and Angkor beer were there to console us.
After our snack and beer, we headed back through the village to the car in order to escape the dreaded mosquitoes that come out when the sun comes down. From there we drove back to our hostel and got back by about 7 pm.
If you are looking for a way to get a real, authentic look at a floating village in Cambodia, then I suggest that you head out to Mey Chrey with Adventure Travel Co. You will skip the gift shops and crowds and be surrounded by locals in boats going about their daily lives. We learned so much from our guide Dorn and highly recommend this trip!
What to Bring
- Water Bottle.
- A Windbreaker. It all depends on the weather and how cold you get. We went when it was overcast and being on the water was cooler than we expected. Also, there is always the chance of rain.
- A camera/mobile phone. The village is beautiful, and you will definitely want to get some pictures.
- Travel sickness tablets if you get car or boat sick. The trip to get to the lake takes about an hour during dry season. The roads to get there were pretty rough. The trip takes less on the rainy season, but then you will be on the boat longer.
Photos in this article by Jen Seiser.