The Tonle Sap Floating Village sits on Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. It’s about an hour’s drive from Siem Reap. And it’s worth a trip to see this part of Cambodia’s countryside. So Steve and I took a tuk-tuk out of the city to visit these murky brown waters that remind me so much of growing up near the Mississippi River. So dark you can’t see through it.
What is the Tonle Sap?
The Tonle Sap is a UNESCO-listed biosphere, which means much of the region has ecological protection because of its essential environmental characteristics. Besides the vast lake, there are freshwater swamps and flood plains. And the surrounding rice fields and grasslands flood seasonally.
The nearby Mekong River overflows during the rainy season, which causes the Tonle Sap Lake to swell up to five times its average size. And additionally, this area is one of the world’s top four inland fishing grounds.
We visited a floating village along the Tahas River that empties into Tonle Sap Lake. Structures are built on stilts to account for the water’s ebb and flow. Monsoon or dry season poses no threat to these homes, churches, and restaurants.
What to Expect at the Floating Village
Here’s a breakdown of our experience at the Tonle Sap Floating Village to give you an idea of what to expect.
1. Village Arrival
Upon arrival at the village, Mr. Thet took us to the “ticket office.” The ticket purchase is what we’d asked for his help ahead of time. You can read more about the tourist scams below. Mr. Thet tried to look out for us.
50 to 100 boats lined up along the river, waiting for passengers. So we got the obligatory picture and hopped aboard for our three-hour tour.
A quick word on the picture: Mr. Thet took one for us. However, some ladies thrust a camera in your face as you leave the tuk-tuk. Then later, when you return, they want you to buy your unflattering and startled image, which they’ve placed into a plastic Tonle Sap frame. In hindsight, it’s not different from Disney Land’s ride photos, and we should have just bought it. But we didn’t.
2. Boat Boarding
All the boats are tied to one another. So you hop onto one and then skip across a couple to get to your boat. Now, I’m a chubby girl without much balance or grace. But I didn’t fall in, so you won’t either! 🙂
At first, our boat had some mechanical issues, but our driver was a beast! I can’t even tell you how impressed I was. She first tried to make repairs mid-river by hanging down over the motor. But then she poled us over to another pier, squeezed us in, and then transferred her battery to a new boat. And finally, after checking its gasoline levels, she had us hop aboard.
And we were off!
3. River Tour
The word “tour” implies an explanation of nearby sites. But that wasn’t the case. So instead, I would think of a visit to Tonle Sap’s Floating Village as simply that. A visit. Maybe we could have hired a guide to explain what we saw. But honestly, that’s what we thought we paid for, so we didn’t know to bring our own.
We enjoyed looking at buildings and homes as our driver passed them, but she gave no explanation of life along the river’s edge. So it sadly felt like a missed opportunity.
Our driver took us slowly down the river until we reached the mouth of Tonle Sap Lake. It seemed like a vast ocean! I’m not even kidding. Super high waves rocked us around, and I wasn’t entirely sure our boat could handle it.
But then the snack boats drew near, and I realized that if a small but heavily-laden dinghy didn’t sink, we wouldn’t either. So I bought school books and pencils for the local children. Read more about this experience down below!
4. Lunch Stop & Mangrove Swamp Tour
After our quick but thrilling lake view, we headed back up the river toward a floating restaurant. While we ate, we tried to eavesdrop on another tour guide to learn more about the area.
The eavesdropping proved necessary because our boat driver sat on a friend’s boat and chatted happily with her, so we learned nothing about Tonle Sap’s Floating Village. However, since the girls’ conversation was highly animated, I’m guessing she told her friend how the engine died and our need to switch boats.
Anyway! We visited the Floating Village in late November while the waters were still high. That meant we got to ride a canoe through the flooded mangrove swamp. This area dries out quite a bit later in the year. So the mangrove swamp only exists when the waters are high.
Again, our guide didn’t speak or point out any sites. But instead, he whistled a little tune while rowing us around. The ride felt peaceful, and we enjoyed it, even though we didn’t learn about the area.
5. Pagoda & School Stop
After returning to the restaurant and boarding our regular boat, we went back upriver to stop at the Pagoda. I believe that Cambodians sometimes use the words pagoda and school interchangeably. Although I think the difference is that pagodas are schools for boys to become monks. And school means a place for all the other children to learn.
So there might be a school AND a pagoda at this Tonle Sap Floating Village, but I’m not entirely sure. At any rate, we stopped to drop off the notebooks and pencils I purchased on the lake. Children swarmed us. Literally. Swarmed.
We handed out the books according to our boat driver’s instructions: “one to one.” It reminded me of our friend Father Peter and our visit to his South African orphanage years ago. And it reminded me of the schoolchildren we saw in Panama, also years ago. So once again, I felt thankful for the lives our grandchildren live. They are healthy, with all their needs met.
6. Return to the Landing Area
After the mangrove tour, we re-boarded our boat for a slow drive back to the landing area, where Mr. Thet greeted us for our drive back to Siem Reap.
Which Floating Village Should You Choose?
We went to Kampong Phluk, about an hour’s drive from Siem Reap. It was touristy, but tourism is how locals earn much of their income. However, we read quite a few reviews about visiting Chong Khneas, and it sounded like a total tourist trap. Chong Khneas is closer to Siem Reap, but its online cons outweighed the potential pros.
Mr. Thet, our tuk-tuk driver, also suggested that Kampong Phluk is the better area, so we followed his advice and headed to Kampong Phluk.
How to Get to the Tonle Sap Floating Village from Siem Reap
The easiest way to get to the Tonle Sap is to walk out of your hotel. You’ll get bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to show you around. And most hotels offer tours to the villages, so ask at your front desk.
It costs about $20 per day for the driver. He takes you to the floating village, helps you get a boat ticket, and waits to take you back into town later.
Many tuk-tuk drivers have laminated menus of local attractions. They’re tucked up into the roof, so if you have a language barrier, point to one of the pictures. However, we had zero issues getting to where we wanted. Most drivers speak some English, so you’ll be fine.
Our Favorite Tuk-tuk Drivers
We met two drivers who we worked with our entire time in Siem Reap. Mr. Nhor Chea met us at the bus station on our arrival and took us to our hotel. We liked him so much that we booked him for five days touring the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Then we met Mr. Thet on a short trip to a grocery store. And he later took us out to the Floating Village.
Reach Mr. Chea on What’s App at +855 12 666 545.
Reach Mr. Thet on What’s App at +855 69 419 614.
Steve and I also loved riding tuk-tuks to visit sites like S-21 in Phnom Penh. It’s just a great way to see the city.
Popular Scams When Visiting Tonle Sap’s Floating Village
Just know that there are always individuals in life who scam others. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are.
Differing Boat Ticket Prices
So, ask your tuk-tuk driver to help you buy the boat ticket. We read online that prices range from $5 to $40 per person.
Steve and I paid $30 each on a “private” boat (our only ticket choice.) We only saw Westerners on private boats. And we only saw Asians on larger boats with 20-30 people. Presumably, larger boats mean lower, shared costs, which we would have appreciated being offered. But here’s what we decided.
- All of SE Asia was financially devastated by Covid’s tourism closure.
- Taking a private boat with a private driver means more villagers earn income.
- Merchants may have higher prices as they try to recover from the pandemic.
- Yes, there are different fee structures based on ethnicity. Get over it.
- If we paid a little more, so be it. $10 doesn’t create the same financial impact for us as it does for Cambodians.
I won’t delve into politics, but I do believe that, in general, if we have more, we should share more. That’s just good humanity to me.
All this to say, you might get charged more than the next guy. And it does leave a bad taste in your mouth. But if you’re traveling, it already means you’ll spend more on your holiday than many Cambodians earn in a year.
As one couple, Steve and I cannot make up for the past two years of low to no tourist income in SE Asia. But as we all collectively start traveling again, we can stay aware of the extreme hardships some areas endured. And we can extend a bit of grace.
School Materials for Students
I’m not entirely sure this is a scam, but it’s worth knowing about ahead of time. But as we left the mouth of the river and entered the lake, ladies in portable 7-11 boats drove up, trying to sell snacks. I quickly passed on the snacks, so she held up notebooks and pencils for the local children. But, of course, what grandmother can pass that up?!
So we grossly overpaid for notebooks, and later, our boat driver took us to the school. The children swarmed us like bees to honey as I handed out notebooks and pencils. I told Steve later I think the children turn them in for candy. The products probably get repackaged and sent out to sell to other tourists.
Yes, it’s a jaded view. But also, yes, many tourist scams exist here. So, in the end, I am reminded that our grandkids rarely lack anything. Thankfully, their needs are regularly met. And these children may play a part in skimming extra cash from tourists. But so be it.
In a country where the average monthly wage is US $192, and annual salaries are about US $1,540, we can accept being willingly overcharged once in a while.
Tonle Sap Floating Village Wrapup
Is visiting the Tonle Sap Floating Village worth it? Yes, it is. You’ll see how the locals live and earn income (fishing and tourism.) But keeping your expectations in check makes the visit better.
- Hire a guide.
- Don’t worry about paying the “foreigner price.” Just accept it.
- And enjoy the scenery.
We enjoyed the tuk-tuk drive from the city to the countryside. It’s nice to see how people live in other parts of the world. And that’s actually one of my favorite things about traveling: the glimpses into different ways of life.
Read about the best time to visit Cambodia.