Floating villages, stilted houses, vivid birdwatching and an exhilarating variety of wildlife.
The lakeside wetlands that form around Cambodia’s vast Tonlé Sap Lake are among the country’s most beautiful sights. Designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve, the name of the lake literally translates to ‘freshwater large river’ or ‘Great Lake.’ It is not only the nation’s largest lake (providing food and livelihoods for most of the region’s rural population) -- but it is also one of the most varied and productive ecosystems throughout the world.
The floating villages that waft over the lake are its most striking feature. Often vibrant and colorful, these floating houses – along with floating schools, markets, vegetable gardens, barns, karaoke bars and other structures – are constructed above bamboo mats, letting the village rise and fall with the tide’s ebb. And depending on the season, the lake can rise and fall quite a bit – between roughly 965 square miles (and just 3 feet deep) in its dry season up to over 6,000 square miles (and 30 feet deep) in the wet season monsoon when the river of the mighty Mekong flows into its waters. This is more than six times its dry season size!
The iconic floating structures also directly connect the village to the great lake, from which so much of local life is intertwined. Roughly 90 percent of the population makes their living by catching fish and tending to the regional agriculture. The freshwater lake is often dotted with huge fish traps and local markets.
Sometimes referred to as “the single most important breeding ground in Southeast Asia for globally threatened large water birds,” the lake is home to roughly 100-150 varieties of waterbirds, including several threatened and endangered species. At its most populated between December and April, many species are also spotted throughout the year. Some of these birds include spot-billed pelicans, greater and lesser adjutants, milky storks, painted storks, black-headed ibis, oriental darters, cormorants, Asian openbills (also known as the Asian openbill stork) and grey-headed fish eagles.
There are also between 200-300 species of fish in the lake – including huge catfish which are endangered and found only in the Mekong and its surrounding rivers and lakes. The fishing industry here provides more than half the fish annually consumed throughout Cambodia. The lake and its surrounding area of mangrove forests are also home to 20 varieties of snakes, 10 varieties of turtles, the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, macaque monkeys, otters, leopard cats and other wildlife.