Cambodia, Destinations, Featured Partners, Intrepid, Landscape Architecture, Musings

Tonlé Sap Tour: Visiting the Floating Villages of Cambodia

January 9, 2013

An odd juxtaposition: being in a hurry, surrounded by a slow and ancient way of life.

We sped toward Siem Reap, Cambodia on a six-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. The dinner hour pit-stop barely gave us time to catch our breaths, and we were off again, aimed for few nights’ stay near the temples of Angkor Wat. I watched the sun set out the bus window, glazing everything from rice paddies to rustic roads with warm light, causing me to consider the farmers working the land to grow a living with each passing day.

When we arrived in Siem Reap, we knew our time was limited. Though we planned to join people from around the world in flocking to see the ancient Hindu temple complex ruins of Angkor, we also wished for a chance to experience something a little farther from the crowds, something a little more insightful about present day life in rural Cambodia. Enter: a visit to the remote floating villages of Tonlé Sap.

Floating Village of Kampong Phluk: Tonlé Sap Tour

Tonlé Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, a UNESCO Biosphere welling up to 15,000 square kilometers in the rainy season, draining to the Mekong River, and shrinking to 2,700 square kilometers during the dry season. North America’s Great Salt Lake is 5,483 square kilometers, by comparison.

One and a half million Cambodians live in 127 communities around and on the water. Lake dwellers live in bamboo floating houses and stilted structures, fishing for a living and navigating the waterways as they’ve done for centuries, though motors and foreigners and outside developers are changing the tides.

“The floodplain ecosystem establishes conditions for an abundance of natural resources…[providing] livelihoods for at least 15 percent of the population and sustenance for the entire Cambodian society. The inland fisheries supported by the Tonle Sap Lake system form the backbone of Cambodian food security, however the people of the Tonle Sap Area experience the highest incidence of poverty in the country…The rich environmental wealth does not equitably contribute to the welfare of the surrounding people and rather the highly profitable resources become a source of conflict among stakeholders…Unequal access rights, growing population pressures, severe poverty, insufficient or nonexistent rights of land tenure, cultural and ethnic divisions and a badly weakened civil society are all factors decrading the natural and social fabric and undermining the sustainability of biodiversity and development in the area.” 1

To see and learn more about this region and the people’s way of life, we connected with a local guide through Intrepid’s Urban Adventures to make the most of our short window of time and follow him on a Tonlé Sap tour to tucked away scenes and hidden spots we never would have found on our own.

In the hot weather of our October visit, the open air remork (Cambodian for tuk tuk) ride was a welcome start to the day.

Our group of three travelers – Ted and me, and an Australian woman named Narelle – and our guide, Ly. Sok Khgang, took to the morning roads with ease, divvied between two vehicles. We headed east on the highway out from Siem Reap and eventually took a right hand turn, entering into forested land split by small roads. So very different from jam-packed bus rides between major Cambodian cities.

Like a movie reel, scenes flashed by to our right and to our left, and when we made another right hand turn and then stepped from the remork to the village streets to wandered the morning market, there wasn’t another westerner in sight.

{Village Market Post Coming Soon!}

A bit down the road, a bit later in the morning, we came to the launch area for boat rides into the Tonlé Sap. Rickety wooden slivers, with kitchen chairs and school desk seats nailed to the floorboard, Cambodian flags waving proudly, and eager boatsmen running to and fro with ropes and paddles, preparing to take the next batch of visitors on their vessels.

We took their hands and steadied our balance, found our seats and settled in for the twenty minute boat ride through the marshland and tributary streams to the Kampong Phluk village…

According to UNESCO, over 400 species of fish have been identified in Tonlé Sap waters, and the regions fisheries supply 80% of Cambodia’s protein intake.

The fertile flood plain nourished by seasonal rising and falling waters yields agricultural land rich with nutrients for vegetable and rice production, and countless families living in the region practice fishing, farming, and harvesting methods taught to them by previous generations.

We drifted into Kampong Phluk (“Harbor of the Tusks”) and slowly the world of village families open up before us.

Fishing boats and fishing nets. Ladders up to sleeping rooms and laundry hung from rails.

Colorful, curious scenes.

But it’s easy to see that the way of life is hard.

Living in these communities generally means limited education, arranged marriages, and an expected lifespan of 54 years.

Moving into the city often means sickness that isolated immune systems cannot manage.

It means devalued skill sets.

It means a jolting shift to whatever this era of modern living in Cambodia has to offer…

It’s odd, floating through their lives, trying to decipher the picture from the outside in.

How are these families to make a living, to make a life, in the twenty-first century?

Perhaps they wonder themselves about the odd juxtaposition: living a slow and ancient way of life, visited by people in a hurry to “help” them change.

Help from foreign investors building posh eco-lodges over the waterways?

Help from large scale fisheries making industrial efforts to cut out the countless middlemen?

Help from ecotourism agencies that partner to invest in clean water sources and eduction?

Developers with motives of all sorts are descending on Tonlé Sap. In Kampong Phluk there are cell towers next to monasteries and foundations in place for the next grand resort. Not so unlike other corners of the world, but perhaps with less oversight?

I read portions of a fascinating paper 2 methodically reviewing the current state of rural Tonlé Sap communities and stable community development and resource management based on responsible ecotourism.

I know enough to know that I don’t know enough. As a concerned citizen of the world, I’m burdened to see these communities overcome the threat of being starved out of existence by lack of education, lack of equitable access to their land and water, and lack of concern and respect by visiting travelers.

It’s easy enough to pass through in a day, to soak it the sights, and to leave for the next adventure, but seeing the faces of people living here and learning about their histories and possible futures makes me wish for the ability to do more.

I can start by sharing what I see, and I can continue by encouraging us all to think about how our decisions and dollars support the local communities around us everyday – at home or on our travels.

For the farmers raising our food.

For the families living in poverty.

For the developers trying to make wise decisions.

I do hope that responsible, sustainable ecotourism helps stabilize the future for Cambodians at Tonlé Sap.

If it is going to be developed at fast speed without paying much attention…ecotourism will only be a blaze. It will run down the quality and quantity of natural environment and biodiversity without benefiting the poor and vulnerable people and the conservation process in the area. 3

There is no quick fix.

There is no speedy solution.

Therefore, management mechanisms of [Tonle Sap Great Lake] core areas should start from addressing local survival groundwork to medium and long-term strategic plans for rapid adjustment, local economic development and conservation supported by good micro and sectoral policies. 4

My hat goes off to the researchers and planners, to the NGO workers and the families there on the ground (or on the water), living out their daily lives in pursuit of a healthy, stable, well-nourished, well-managed tomorrow.

As we left the floating villages and motored back along the canals to the original launch point, I wished we could slow down.

I wished time could slow down. For their sake and for mine.

I wondered…

…just how will these communities last?

Tonlé Sap Secrets, 4-5 Hour Long Guided Tonlé Sap Tour
Especially in delicate ecosystems and threatened local communities such as the Cambodian floating villages, they’ve demonstrated commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

Tonlé Sap UNESCO Biosphere
Description, ecosystems, habitat and land cover types, research and monitoring

The Flowing Heart of Cambodia
NPR’s Morning Edition featuring Radio Expeditions stories from Tonlé Sap in a co-production from NPR and the National Geographic Society

The Lake Clinic
Delivering Medical Aid to the Floating Villages of Cambodia

Many thanks to Intrepid / Urban Adventures for sponsoring this post. I first discovered Intrepid when I bought a second-hand T-shirt at Goodwill in 2008. I was saving every penny for travel, but I couldn’t resist the map of the world made out of Intrepid logos… I Googled the company and fell in love with their travel photos and inspirations. Urban Adventures’ small-group tours around the world offer unique, local experiences showcasing different sides of typical travel destinations. All tours run as guaranteed departures with a maximum of 12 per group (which means even if you’re the only one signed up, the tour still runs!). For more details, check out their day trips around Siem Reap, Cambodia.

{More Stories From Cambodia.}

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  • Reply Kaylea Foster January 9, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Wow, I’ve read about these communities in southern China, but didn’t know they still existed anywhere. Once upon a time, the river was the sewer. Is that still the case today?

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians January 14, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      I’d like to learn more about the communities in China, Kaylea. I hadn’t heard of them…

      We stopped at a little floating restaurant and Ted used the “toilet” – yep, they still use the water as a sewer system. ; )

  • Reply Andrew Buck January 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Can you tell me what type of tree that is growing in the water next to the house on the columns? I’m assuming that it is not submerged year round. Amazing photograph. That’s the type of curious thing that makes me want to follow in your footsteps. : )

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians January 14, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      Hey Drew, I don’t actually know what kind of tree it is. I’ll see if I can find out : )

      Let’s go on another sibling trip sometime : )

  • Reply Lauren H. of Sobremesa In Spain February 5, 2013 at 2:09 am

    Bethany what an amazing experience to see, feel and understand this community. We recently returned from Siem Reap and the zone, and like you, I struggled to come to terms with what I was seeing, and how to make a positive impact. Tourism dollars do reach some of these families, but it’s clear that the tourist must be informed and respectful of where they invest their money – not view these communities simply as floating attractions. I’m glad to see you sharing your story, educating ourselves is the first step. .

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  • Reply Victoria January 12, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I recently visited Tonle Sap myself and was shocked at how much the trip felt like I was a spectator at a human zoo. Yes it was beautiful, and also interesting to see how the villagers lived, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something the tour guides weren’t telling me.

    A couple of online searches and it seems that the people living in the floating villages are illegal refugees from Vietnam. They were forced to leave Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and returned as it’s the place they see as home. They’re denied citizenship in Cambodia, which is why they live on the water (they’re unable to own anything on land as they have no legal status in the country). Even though they fish for their livelihood, because they’re not Cambodian, they have to pay a fee to the police for every single fish they catch.

    I’d love to be proven wrong, but I doubt they see much of the money that tourism brings – certainly not enough to provide education or have access to proper healthcare. It’s a similar situation for the hill tribes in northern Thailand: the Karin women from Myanmar in particular are even denied a chance to be declared as refugees as they’re so useful at pulling in the bahts from tourists – I’ve heard that when they arrive from Myanmar they’re immediately taken to the pseudo Karin villages to start work in the tourist trade. In some cases in Thailand, the villagers will earn as little as 2% of the money tourists pay to go and visit them, and this money tends to go to only a few people in the village – the ones who are friends with the tour guides.

    This article gives a really good insight into the situation at Tonle Sap:

    There are so many tourist companies now using the buzz words of “eco tourism” and “sustainable tourism”, but it seems like it’s all just a front. The photos are beautiful and visiting can be a memorable experience, but I can only see that it perpetuates the situation these people are in. Apparently community based tourism is the way to go, but it’s difficult to find. The tourism businesses always get a bit cagey when you start asking where the money goes and who’s running the projects.

  • What say you?