Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is fed from the Mekong River flowing from Thailand and Laos. This lake is one of the world’s richest inland fishing grounds and is home to many fisherman villages along the lake. There are more than three million people living in villages on the bank of the Lake, with 90% of them earning a living by being fisherman and farmers. During the monsoon season, the water rises very high, which is why many of the houses are built on stilts. Other houses are built on floating bamboo platforms to rise and fall with the water. At its peak, the lake will reach 46 feet in depth.
On the shore of the lake is a small fish market where people come from Siem Reap city to buy the fish from the fisherman early in the morning. The floating villagers come into town maybe 1-2 a week to sell their produce and fish at other markets as well. There are huge fish traps and homemade nets through the villages, as well as plotted gardens in the water where they are growing plants.
Floating Village Way of Life
Visiting the village and seeing a simplified different way of life is powerful. There is one small, floating schoolhouse with volunteer teachers. You can see children taking their own boats to a school who are very skilled on the water from a young age. Others who are still younger can be seen floating naked in pots since they haven’t graduated to steering their own boats yet. There are herds of water buffalo all around in the region sitting in the mud to avoid the bugs that swarm at night.
Siem Reap Floating Village: How to get there
Public Transportation to the Floating Villages
The nearest part of Tonle Sap Lake only takes one hour to reach from Siem Reap City. This section of the lake is called the Chong Khneas village on the water. To get to Chong Kneas, the closest but most touristy floating village from Siem Reap costs $3USD by tuk-tuk each way (more if the driver waits), or US$15 or so by taxi. The ride is around 20 minutes. There are lots of bicycle rentals in town, and it is only a 7-mile ride through picturesque villages and rice fields.
In order to avoid this more crowded touristy floating village, we took a tour with a tour company called, Adventure Travel Co. They take you to a private, different area of the lake with a floating village that is a bit farther to get to (around one hour). It is worth the extra time because you are taken out to a remote authentic village. A tour company will cost around $20USD for a tour and transportation. Below is information about the group we used.
Siem Reap Floating Village Tour
Adventure Travel Co.
Adventure Travel Co. is a youthful tour company based out of Lub D hostel in downtown Siem Reap, Cambodia. They offer weekly tours to the floating village, avoiding the tourist traps. This group brings you to a more remote location an hour out of town in an authentic small bamboo house floating village with no other tourists. You go in a small group usually of about 5-6 people, which you will not get with almost any other tour companies. The floating village tour is a 5-hour sunset trio that starts at 2:30 pm and will get you back around 7:30 pm. Ideally, you will watch the sunset on the lake over the village. The tour includes transportation from your accommodation, boat, and snacks on the tour.
Tour Group: Tours, booking & more info here
When: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays 2:30pm-7:30pm (5 hour tour)
What: Floating Village Sunset Lake Tour
Time: 5 hours
Price: $20 USD per person
2:30pm Get picked up for tour
3:00pm Stop by the market for snacks & drinks for the tour
3:20pm Head out to the village
4:20pm Arrive in the outer village dock area
4:30pm Take a small wooden boat out on the lake
5:00pm Begin arriving at the floating houses village area & tour the village
6:00pm Have a snack and watch the sunset & water buffalo
6:30pm Head back
7:30-8pm Arrive back at your accommodations
Siem Reap Floating Village: What to bring
- Raincoat (it rains a lot and especially during the rainy season you need a jacket!)
- Appropriate clothing (cover arms and legs to be in the village to be polite)
- Medicine for if you get car or boat sick. The trip to get to the lake takes about an hour during the dry season. The roads to get there were pretty rough. The trip takes less during the rainy season, but then you will be on the boat longer.
- Toilet paper
The tour departed from our hostel at 2:30. We only picked up 2 more people because it was low season. Our guide was Dorn, a local who grew up in a nearby village close to the lake. While he didn’t live in a floating village growing up, he was very familiar with the area and culture. As we drove, he told us all about owning and riding water buffalos. The locals prefer them to cows because they can swim and even carry people on their backs in the rainy season. He also told us some humorous stories about losing water buffalo and how the owners can tell which one is theirs by the horns. After looking at couple water buffalo, we became certain that if we ever lost one it would be gone for good. Apparently, we don’t have the eye for water buffalo.
After we all got picked up our first stop was the market to get some snack. Dorn bought local fresh fruit and asked if we wanted to eat crickets. Judging from the group response, he got rice and black beans cooked in bamboo instead. I definitely recommend this local dish. It was delicious and sweet mixed with savory. Once he had bought our snacks, plus a six-pack of Angkor beer, we were on our way to the village on the lake.
The drive is roughly an hour long during the dry season. Dorn said it’s shorter during the rainy season because the lake becomes larger, and so you arrive at the boat dock faster. It seems like during the rainy season you spend more time traveling by boat than the car on your tour.
Overall, the drive isn’t too long, but the roads are pretty rough when you get closer to the village. It had rained the night before our trip so the roads became quite muddy. As a result, we had to pull over, wait for a small boat, and then travel the last 15 minutes of the journey through a small canal to the main lake. Since the roads can be quite bumpy, you may want to bring car sickness medication in advance if you get cars sick. Also, there are no restrooms at the market, boat dock, or village. You are on a boat the whole time and the bushes before you board are the only available toilet. It’s an authentic experience that comes at the price of very few modern amenities.
Below is a picture of our boat. At maximum, it could probably hold 9 people. We had seven of us on the tour, and it didn’t feel crowded at all.
Upon entering the lake, the first thing you will pass is a “dock,” which is really more like a collection of boats pulled up on the shore and a small gathering of huts on the mainland. This is the small market where the locals sell their fish and buy their vegetables from the mainlanders. This is the exchange area that is bustling at 4 am in the morning. From the dock, you only have to travel roughly 5-10 minutes to the village.
What You Will See at the Siem Reap Floating Village
The first main building you pass it their small Siem Reap floating village school. It is painted white and blue, setting it apart from the other mostly wood buildings. It is a primary school for the students of the village. They have to paddle themselves to school in little boats. Since there are so few classrooms, students usually go to school every other day so they can accommodate all the kids.
After you pass the school, you will move to the main village area. This is where you can get some of the best photos of how the locals live. We saw several small vendor boats going to and fro offering snacks and dinner to the residents. I guess it’s their mobile boat version of 7-11.
The floating village was busy with life. Locals were out getting ready for dinner, and kids were floating around on small boats. The atmosphere was really unique. It was definitely a small, tight nit community. It was crazy how many little dogs we saw on the platforms. When we asked Dorn about it, he told us that they make a great warning system when the family is out. There was a special beauty in the ruggedness of the village. Little elements like potted flowers and plants really added to the sense of home.
Snacks and Questions
When we finished our trip through the village, Dorn and the local boatmen pulled the boat over for us to watch a small grouping of water buffalo. He also got out the food and beers for us to eat and drink while we talked. We spent about 30 minutes snacking and asking him questions about the village. Normally, this would be when you get your beautiful sunset photos, but unfortunately, when we went it was super overcast and dark and on the verge of rain the whole time. Luckily, the water buffalo and Angkor beer were there to keep us company.
After our snack, we wrapped things up and head back to the car in order to avoid the mosquitoes that come out when the sun goes down. By the time we made it to the car and drove back to the hostel, it was about 7 pm.
We love our experience with Dorn and Adventure Travel Co. They employ great, kind, and informative guides. We really respect this group because they take you to see a real, authentic picture of Cambodia. You won’t’ find any gifts shops or gimmicks out here, just real life and plenty of water buffalo.
If you are looking for more things to do while in Siem Reap, consider booking a trip with Adventure Travel Co. to Angkor Wat. We did and had a great time.