Lake Tonlé Sap (meaning "Large Fresh Water River," but more commonly translated as "Great Lake") is a combined lake and river system of huge importance to Cambodia. It is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997.
Chong Khneas is the floating village at the edge of Lake Tonle Sap closest and most accessible to Siem Reap. If you want a relatively quick and easy look at Lake 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 costs $6 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 and 'unspoiled' as floating villages further from Siem Reap. The boat 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 very highly recommended Gecko Environment Centre, which offers displays and information introducing the ecology and biodiversity of the lake area.
Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary
The 'bird sanctuary' at the Prek Toal core area of Lake 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 Lake Tonle Sap 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 Lake Tonle Sap, 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 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.
Most people arrange a trip to Prek Toal through their guesthouse or a tour operator. To do it yourself, take a moto or taxi from Siem Reap to the Phnom Krom/Chong Khneas boat dock. Arrange a boat to the Prek Toal Environmental Research Station (starting at $35-$45 return,) and then from the Research Station a $5 entrance fee and $15-$25 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 at the Research Station if you want to stay the night to take full advantage of the sunset and early morning viewing hours.
Kampong Phluk is a cluster of three villages of stilted houses built within the floodplain of LakeTonle Sap 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 stilted houses. In the wet season when water level rises again, 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 as yet unperturbed by tourism. The area can be reached by boat from the Chong Khneas or by a combination of road and boat. Make arrangements through your guesthouse of tour operator, or charter a boat at the Chong Khneas docks (starting at $35 return for a half-day at the village). By road/boat, take a car or moto to Roluos village just off Route #6 east of Siem Reap and the take a boat through the flooded forest the rest of the way to the village. During the dry season the road is clear and you can drive all of the way to the village.
Kampong Khleang is located on the northern edge of Lake TonleSap 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.)