The largest freshwater lake in the whole of South East Asia, Tonle Sap is located just over 10 miles from the popular tourist destination of Siem Reap. Famed for its intense natural beauty, visitors can take a boat trip through Tonle Sap lake from the cities of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap and this is a great way to see the area’s diverse range of flora and fauna.
There are also a number of traditional floating villages located in this region of Cambodia, which can be explored by booking a guided tour from most hotels and guesthouses in Siem Reap. Travellers destined for Phnom Penh can take an express boat through the lake from Siem Reap to the Khmer capital, although this does not leave any time for sightseeing en route. More about Siem Reap transport.
Getting to Tonle Sap
The easiest way to explore Tonle Sap is by taking the express boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. This journey lasts for around five hours and takes visitors through the very heart of the lake.
However, it is also possible to take special guided tours of Tonle Sap lake from Siem Reap. These tours cover the area’s main attractions such as the village of Chong Khneas and the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and usually last for an entire day.
When to visit Tonle Sap
The best time to explore Tonle Sap lake is during the dry season, which lasts from December to April. The water level drops considerably during this season and most of the area’s wildlife becomes concentrated in one area. The monsoon rains descend in June, causing the lake to swell to around twice its usual size. Although the rain only falls for a few hours each day, exploring Tonle Sap lake during the monsoon season can be a soggy experience.
Chong Khneas floating village
Containing an interesting collection of traditional Khmer and Vietnamese floating houses and a large floating market, this is the closest village to Siem Reap. Guided boat tours of the Chong Khneas floating village last for around two hours and after taking a taxi from Siem Reap visitors will find plenty of boat drivers at the main dock. The trip includes a visit to the Gecko Environment Centre, where visitors will be able to learn all about the biodiversity and ecology of the Tonle Sap lake area.
Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary
Located at the northwest tip of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, this is an important breeding ground for endangered water birds. Popular with bird watchers, a large number of species can be seen at the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary including painted storks, milky storks, grey-headed fish eagles, spot-billed pelicans and black-headed ibis. There is basic overnight accommodation available at the Research Station, which allows visitors to rise at dawn to witness the stunning sunrise and magical dawn chorus.
Tonle Sap Exhibition
Located in Siem Reap, this a good place to visit to get a feel for the Tonle Sap lake area. Visitors will find an exhibition here dedicated to the people, culture and environment of Tonle Sap lake, complete with maps and photographs. There are also detailed models of traditional boats and houses, with explanations written in English, French and Khmer. Situated on the road to Angkor Wat, just past the Jayavarman VII hospital, Open: everyday to 14:00, free; tel: +855 63 964 694, email: email@example.com
Featuring houses atop of long wooden stilts, this group of three villages is located some 12 miles to the southeast of Siem Reap. Surrounded by flooded mangrove forest, around 3,000 people live in these traditional Khmer villages where fishing is the main occupation.
Although many people travel to Kampong Phluk by boat, it is possible to drive here during the dry season by taking Route #6 to the east of Siem Reap, which passes through the village of Rolous along the way.
Situated around 25 miles to the east of Siem Reap, this is the most remote village in the Tonle Sap lake area. Few tourists venture this far, but it is easy to reach the village by simply booking a guided tour in Siem Reap. One of the largest communities in the area, Kampong Khleang features thousands of wooden houses on stilts and the pace of life here is gentle, making this a good place to unwind.
The capital city of Phnom Penh is just a short boat ride away from Tonle Sap lake. For more on Phnom Penh.