Tonle Sap Lake

Cambodia's heart

Photo of , , Siem Reap

What we say: 4 stars

If you came to Siem Reap on the boat -- either from Phnom Penh or Battambang -- the great body of water you travelled across is the Tonle Sap lake, the largest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The name means "large freshwater river" and it's actually a combined lake and river system of vital importance to Cambodia's agriculture and biodiversity. For much of the year the lake is quite small, but during the monsoon, the Tonle Sap River (connecting the lake to the far larger and more powerful Mekong River) reverses flow and water from the Mekong flows up the Tonle Sap river, filling the lake and the floodplain that surrounds it. In the process masses of sediment are dumped, and with the forests flooded an ideal breeding ground for fish is created.

More than half of Cambodia's protein intake comes from the Tonle Sap, which creepily includes the world's richest snake harvest. This remarkable water system is the reason why the ancient Angkor civilisation was able to thrive here and grow enough crops to support such a dense population. Today, the lake remains the lifeblood of the region, with a full third of Cambodia's total population living in the region surrounding it.

The lake itself is home to some 130,000 people, many of who live precarious existences in floating and stilted villages. Generally speaking, the further you go from Siem Reap, the more interesting and less corrupted by tourism the people are. The most commonly visited (in order of popularity) are Chong Khneas, Kompong Phluk, Kompong Khleang and Prek Toal, with the first being the most frequently visited and so the most aggressive toward tourists.

Corruption is endemic to all aspects of commerce on the Tonle Sap -- you can't avoid it. If you feel strongly about it, just don't go. The new $20 'environment fee' charged from the launching area near Domdek is a prime example.


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