There is more to Siem Reap beyond Angkor Wat. If you ever get templed out by the massive temples of Siem Reap, a visit to the floating villages along Tonle Sap’s lakeside is an option. Kampong Phluk Floating Village is one such community that’ll give you a glimpse of what it’s like to live a life over water.
Getting to Kampong Phluk Floating Village
I booked a half-day tour with a great company with friendly and professional tour guides, Green Era Travel and with a minivan, we drove from the Siem Reap center to the Tonle Sap quay. The scenic ride through agricultural and rural area took about 45 minutes. We passed by a strip of dirt road before reaching the quay where pump boats to Kampong Phluk dock. Kampong Phluk sits within the floodplain of Tonle Sap and can be reached through about 30 to 45 minutes boat ride from the quay.
Tonle Sap Lake and Its Unique Hydrology
I hope I didn’t scare you with the term hydrology. However, the way of life at the Kampong Phluk Floating Village can be better understood by learning the unique flow cycle of Tonle Sap Lake. During the rainy season, upstream Mekong River water volume rises, flows through Tonle Sap River, which eventually fills Tonle Sap Lake and inundates the surrounding floodplains, including Kampong Phluk Floating Village. The volume of water at the lake, as my guide told me, reaches about 3 times its volume during this time. This makes Tonle Sap Lake the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
Now, here’s the interesting part. As Tonle Sap Lake reaches its maximum water volume, Mekong River on the other hand falls to its minimum water level. At the end of rainy season, Tonle Sap river reverses its flow and empties into the Mekong River within the Vietnam’s south territory.
Vietnam should be thanking Tonle Sap Lake because it acts as a large containment basin during rainy season and prevents flooding the Mekong River further downsteam. Whereas during the dry season, Tonle Sap Lake supplements water to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
The vast Tonle Sap Lake
The life-giving Tonle Sap Lake
More than anyone else, Cambodia benefits from the life-giving resources of the lake. As Tonle Sap Lake inundates the surrounding areas, it becomes breeding ground for fish. Fishing is actually not allowed during this time to allow the fishes to breed. Fishing can resume at the end of the rainy season. I am not sure though how strict this regulation is being implemented. It is said that more than half of the fish in Cambodia is sourced from the lake. So the next time you eat a Cambodian fish amok, there’s a big chance it once swam in the Tonle Sap Lake.
The flooded forest at the surrounding floodplains, like in Kampong Phluk Floating Village, also serves as important habitat not just for fishes but for other animals such as crocodiles, birds, turtles and monkeys. In 1997, the lake was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which calls for the conservation of its biodiversity with its sustainable use.
This boat is probably on its way to the Tonle Sap Lake
Tonle Sap Lake's floodplain surrounded by partially submerged forest
Life at Kampong Phluk Village
Given the flood cycle of Tonle Sap Lake, dwellers at the Kampong Phluk Floating Village have adapted to the lake’s flow. I have seen floating villages in Myanmar’s Inle Lake, but the stilt houses at the Kampong Phluk Floating Village are built much higher at about 8 to 10 meters, as compared with those at Inle Lake where the average water depth is only 1.5 m. I came in August, which is already part of the rainy season. The water was high but my guide told me that the peak volume would hit around September.
It would also be interesting to come back to this village during the dry season to witness how high up the stilts are built. I imagine how the children would excitedly run around the dried lake bottom after spending 6 months over the lake. The elders would also be probably busy reinforcing their homes. This scenario reminds me of how Filipinos prepare for and experience flooding. Well, the big difference is that the Tonle Sap phenomenon is an act of nature while flooding in the Philippines is a combination of an act of nature and act of humans (you know, like clogged drainage, illegal logging, etc.).
Just like any other communities, Kampung Phluk Floating Village also has schools, temples, church and government offices. The houses are interestingly painted with similar shades of green and blue. This strongly reminds me of the northernmost islands of the Philippines in Batanes, particularly in Sabtang Island, where blue-painted doors are common. The easiest explanation to this is that the island is remotely located. Hence, supplies such as paints are scarce and whatever available supply would have to be distributed and shared by the community.
A church within the Kampong Phluk Floating Village
The blue building is a building while the rightmost structure is the village's government office. Cool, right?
The boat ride to the Kampong Phluk Village allowed me to literally peek at the everyday village lives of the people. They source their electricity all the way from Siem Reap mainland, while their water for washing and cooking comes from the lake. Goods are transported by boat, of course, when the floodplain is flooded. Beneath or beside the houses, there are also some farms for rearing animals like chicken and pigs.
A dash of vibrance at the stilt houses
Canoe Ride by the Flooded Forest
After getting to the end of the village and finally reaching the vast Tonle Sap lake, the boat maneuvered back to the village. On our way back, we stopped by that part of the lakeside where flooded mangroves abound. We got off from our boat to transfer to a small paddle boat that could cross the thick mangrove forest. This part of the tour is optional, and it's actually my favorite part of the tour. It’s like being in a fantasy movie and marching into the homes of crocodiles, snakes, birds and monkeys.
Impressions of Kampong Phluk Floating Village
I could hardly imagine living for a week above flooded water, even more so live about 6 months a year above a lake. But the people of Kampong Phluk Floating Village, despite the challenges and hard realities, had already mastered the art of adapting to this kind of environment. They have learned how to make use of the lake as their resource. They’ve become the best engineers for stilt houses, as well.
Kampong Phluk villagers have shown that they could harmoniously exist together with the lake and the natural resources it supports. In the same way, I hope that Kampong Phluk village will remain relatively not as negatively influenced by tourism even when influx of tourists is sure to increase in the future. Also, the regulation of the rate of tourists going into the mangrove forest should be seriously given attention to if we want to preserve the mangroves and the wildlife it serves.
While the pressure of overexploitation of resources is a threat within the Kampong Phluk area, the bigger picture is that Kampong Phluk is just one component of Tonle Sap’s ecosystem. I hope that Tonle Sap having been declared as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve will be subject to an integrated resource management and sustainable tourism development.
I still think that visiting the Kampong Phluk Floating Village is a must when in Siem Reap. Witnessing life in the floating villages helped me appreciate more the resilience of Cambodians. Likewise, it gave me a better perception on the importance of preserving the Tonle Sap Lake, upon which living beings greatly depend their lives on.
Note: This half day tour was hosted by Green Era Travel. All opinions are my own, and no one from this organization reviewed or approved the article.
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