Cambodia's Great Lake, the Boeung Tonle Sap
(Tonle Sap Lake,) is the most prominent feature on the map of Cambodia -
a huge dumbbell-shaped body of water stretching across the northwest
section of the country. In the wet season, the Tonle Sap Lake is one of
the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, swelling to an expansive 12,000 km2.
During the dry half of the year the Lake shrinks to as small as 2500 km2,
draining into the Tonle Sap River, which meanders southeast, eventually
merging with the Mekong River at the 'chaktomuk' confluence of rivers
opposite Phnom Penh. But during the wet season a unique hydrologic
phenomenon causes the river to reverse direction, filling the lake
instead of draining it. The engine of this phenomenon is the Mekong
River, which becomes bloated with snow melt and runoff from the monsoon
rains in the wet season. The swollen Mekong backs up into the Tonle Sap
River at the point where the rivers meet at the 'chaktomuk' confluence,
forcing the waters of the Tonle Sap River back upriver into the lake.
The inflow expands the surface area of lake more than five-fold,
inundating the surrounding forested floodplain and supporting an
extraordinarily rich and diverse eco-system. More than 100 varieties of
waterbirds including several threatened and endangered species, over 200
species of fish, as well as crocodiles, turtles, macaques, otter and
other wildlife inhabit the inundated mangrove forests. The Lake is also
an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish
consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the
human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive -
floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an
economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the
wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.
Toal Bird Sanctuary
The 'bird sanctuary' at the Prek Toal core area of the Tonle Sap
Biosphere Reserve has been called "the single most important breeding
ground in Southeast Asia for globally threatened large waterbirds." The
Biosphere covers 31,282 hectares at the northwest tip of the Tonle Sap
Lake and plays host to species including Greater and Lesser Adjuncts,
Black-headed Ibis, Painted Stork, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican,
Grey-Headed Fish Eagle and many more species. Of the three Biosphere
core areas on the Tonle Sap Lake, Prek Toal is the most accessible from
Siem Reap and the most popular with birdwatchers. The best time of year
for viewing is the dry season (December-May) when flocks of migratory
birds congregate at Prek Toal. As the dry season progresses and the
water recedes, the number of birds increases but the travel to some of
the more important viewing areas becomes more difficult.
Arrange a trip to Prek Toal through your guesthouse or a tour operator.
To do it yourself, take a moto or taxi from Siem Reap to the Chong
Khneas boat dock. Arrange a boat to the Prek Toal Environmental Research
Station (starting at $60 return,) a $20 entrance fee and $30 for a
guided boat tour of the sanctuary. The Research Station has information
on the area's flora and fauna. There are also basic overnight
accommodations if you want to stay the night to take full advantage of
the sunset and early morning viewing hours.
Chong Khneas is the floating village at the edge of the lake closest and
most accessible to Siem Reap. If you want a relatively quick and easy
look at the Tonle Sap, boat tours of Chong Khneas are available,
departing from the Chong Khneas boat docks all day long. Take a motodup
or taxi the 11-15km from Siem Reap to the boat docks where there are
always boats waiting for passengers. A two-hour boat trip through the
floating village runs $20/pax and the boats may carry as many as 15
other people. The boatman will probably point out the differing Khmer
and Vietnamese floating households and the floating markets, clinics,
schools and other boatloads of tourists. Chong Khneas, while
interesting, is over-touristed and is not as picturesque as floating
villages further afield. The trip usually includes two stops: one at a
touristy floating 'fish and bird exhibition' with a souvenir and snack
shop, and the other at the Gecko Environment Centre, which offers
information introducing the ecology and biodiversity of the lake area.
Kampong Phluk is a cluster of three villages of stilted houses built
within the floodplain about 16 km southeast of Siem Reap. The villages
are primarily Khmer and have about 3000 inhabitants between them.
Flooded mangrove forest surrounds the area and is home to a variety of
wildlife including crab-eating macaques. During the dry season when the
lake is low, the buildings in the villages seem to soar atop their
6-meter stilts exposed by the lack of water. At this time of year many
of the villagers move out onto the lake and build temporary houses. In
the wet season when water level rises, the villagers move back to their
permanent houses on the floodplain, the stilts now hidden under the
water. Kampong Phluk's economy is, as one might expect, based in
fishing, primary in shrimp harvesting.
Kampong Phluk sees comparatively few foreign visitors and offers a close
look at the submerged forest and lakeside village life. The area can be
reached by boat from the Chong Khneas or by road. Make arrangements
through your guesthouse of tour operator, or charter a boat at the Chong
Khneas docks. During the wet season, drive to Roluos village just off
Route #6 east of Siem Reap and then take a boat through the flooded
forest the rest of the way. During the dry season the road is clear,
making the boat unnecessary. Much of the road has recently been
improved, now paved most of the way.
Kampong Khleang is located on the northern lake-edge about 35 km east of
Siem Reap town, more remote and less touristed than Kampong Phluk.
Visitors to Kampong Khleang during the dry season are universally
awestruck by the forest of stilted houses rising up to 10 meters in the
air. In the wet season the waters rise to within one or two meters of
the buildings. Like Kampong Phluk, Kampong Khleang is a permanent
community within the floodplain of the Lake, with an economy based in
fishing and surrounded by flooded forest. But Kampong Khleang is
significantly larger with near 10 times the population of Kampong Phluk,
making it the largest community on the Lake.
The area can be reached by boat from the Chong Khneas docks or by a
combination of road to Domdek on Route #6 and then boat to the village,
the best method depending on the time of year. During the dry season,
boats cannot get all of the way to the main villages. Consult your
guesthouse or tour operator about current conditions. Many tour
operators have very little experience in this area so it is best to
consult with adventure tour operators and guesthouses that specialize in
this area. Small group tours begin at about $35 for a half day and range
up through $70 depending on the size of the group and the type of tour.
To get there yourself, either charter a boat from Chong Khneas or take
car or moto to Domdek village on Route #6 east of Siem Reap, turn south
and continue to the water's edge where boats wait to ferry passengers
into the village. During the dry season the road is clear and you can
take a car or moto all of the way to the village.)
More Bird Watching
Away from the lake, northwest of Siem Reap the Ang Trapeng Thmor
Sarus Crane Reserve offers another unique birdwatching
Ang Trapeng Thmor Sarus Crane Reserve
(The following about Ang Trapeng Thmor comes courtesy of the Sam
Veasna Center.) Originating as a reservoir on the Angkorian highway
66 it was rebuilt as a man-made irrigation and water storage reservoir
by slave labor during the Khmer Rouge Regime in 1976. The reservoir now
harbors a unique wetland associated with grassland, dipterocarp forests
and paddy fields. Aside from being a feeding ground for more than 300
Sarus Crane in the dry (non-breeding) season, more than 200 species of
other birds occur here, of which 18 have been classified as globally or
near globally threatened. This is also one of the handful of sites in
Cambodia where the endangered Eld’s Deer can be seen. Colonies of fruit
bats inhabit larger trees that are often semi submerged on the edge of
The best time to see the Sarus Crane is from February to May though an
abundance of bird species can be viewed all year. There is also a hill
top Angkorian temple a few kilometers into the forest while traditional
silk weaving is still practiced in the adjacent village. A boat trip can
be taken on the reservoir which depending on the time of year is 11km
along and 8 wide and offers fantastic views of the surrounding
Officially declared a Sarus Crane Reserve by Royal Decree in 2000 the
area designated covers over 12000 Hectares, following the work of Sam
Veasna and his friends at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS),
all foreign visitors are required are required to register at the WCS
Office in the adjacent village.
ATT is a day trip from Siem Reap though accommodation can be
arranged at the WCS HQ (Tel: +(855)(0)12-703033) or organized through the Sam
Veasna Center in Siem Reap (Tel: +(855)(0)12-520828) in the adjacent village,
giving birdwatchers the chance of dawn sightings and offering the
opportunity of visiting the massive Angkorian temple complex of Banteay Chma
Camoflage Adventure Cambodia
Mountain bike from Bakong temple to Kampong Phluk village, and boat
jouney on Tonle Sap.
#37, New Street A behind U-Care
Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours
Single and multi-day all-inclusive, high end, cultural, ad-
venture and humanitarian tours by 4WD vehicles, dirt bike and car to
Koh Ker, Preah Vihear, Preah Khan temples and historic KR area,
Anlong Veng. Tonle Sap Lake tours.
Address: Just off the road to Angkor Wat,
Kampoul Adventure Tour
Cultural and adventure tours. Tonle Sap Lake tours.
#0593 Wat Bo Road
Peace Of Angkor
Set up by a British photographer in 2003; Peace Of Angkor run
special tours to remote temples and Tonle Sap Lake all year round .
Bird watching Tours at Prek Toal and The Sarus Crane Reserve at Ang
Trapang Thmor are featured during the dry season.
200 meters east of the Catholic Church near Wat Po Lanka,
(has comprehensive info and
photography of Angkor and beyond.)
Offers unique single and multi-day adventure tours. Bicycling,
kayaking, boating, trekking and more. Angkor temple tours and
outlying temple tours, bicycling countryside trips, temple trekking
tours, combination bicycling/kayaking tours, etc.
Sam Veasna Center (SVC)
Sam Veasna Center (SVC) organizes half or full day trips focusing
on birds but offering a glimpse of Cambodian rural life with a
trained local guide. SVC was set up to promote wildlife conservation
in Cambodia. It works together with the Wildlife Conservation
Society and local village communities to develop remote sites close
to the habitat of some spectacular bird life. The local communities
benefit from the infrastructure set up for the visitors. Trips to
see Sarus Crane at Ang Trapaeng Thmor, Giant and White Shouldered
Ibis at Tamtboey, A vulture restaurant at Chhep amongst others, plus
some of the most beautiful and unspoiled countryside in Cambodia.
Tara River Boat
Tara Riverboat operates both half day trips and sunset tours of
Chong Khneas floating village and stops at the Gecko Environmental
Centre fish and a crocodile farm along the way. Meals and drinks are
served on the boat. All boat tours include pick up and return to
hotels and a guide. Price for half day is $27/person and sunset is
$33/person. The sunset cruise includes all drinks including
unlimited champagne, wines, beers, etc. and a 2 course meal. Tours
to Prek Toal (bird sanctuary,) and Kampong Phluk, Kampong Khleang
(traditional lake villages) and Battambang also available. These
tours also include food, drinks, pick up and return to hotel in an
a/c car. Price for Prek Toal tour is $125/person. The Kampong Phluk
is $60/person. Tailored adventure tours on request.
Located at Chong Khneas floating village,
Kampong Phluk photo by Gordon Sharpless.
Kampong Khleang photo by Dave Perkes.