Our last stop in Cambodia was to the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap Lake. Aside from being a huge body of water, this lake is famous for its floating villages. After thoroughly researching many options for boat tours of the lake, we decided to forgo the closest boat tour option- Chong Kneas- and go for the less touristy stilt house village of Kompong Phluk. I had read too many horror stories of people being overcharged for the tour, and then asked to buy overpriced rice to “feed the children of the village.” We wanted to avoid any awkward tourist trap or “take advantage of the rich white tourist” situation, and see real life on the lake without that pressure. Keep in mind that the floating portion of Kompong Phluk is very small, and most of the houses are stilt houses. For us, the stilt houses were more interesting than the floating houses anyway!
When we asked to go to Kompong Phluk, our trusty driver called our AirBnB host to ensure that we were on the same page. It was a slightly longer drive than to Chong Kneas, but I feel it was worth it. We drove on the main road for awhile, then pulled off onto side roads where we passed little communities and witnessed the living conditions of Cambodians living in more rural areas. The homes were similar to those in Vietnam- open-air, brightly colored, but with very little furnishings inside. We drove out onto this long, skinny dirt embankment for what seemed like forever. I thought to myself, “Is our driver driving us INTO the lake!?” And then, there were other cars parked, boats tied up along the embankment and a ticket desk. Tickets were $20/adults, and I think our kids were free. A boat captain led us out to his rickety little boat, which looked like it may fall apart at any minute! Our driver hopped on the boat with us, and we were off!
Something I did not realize beforehand is that the launch point for the boats was about half an hour up river from the stilt house village Kompong Phluk, and the open water of the lake was another 15-20 minute ride past that. So, if you’re looking for a long boat tour of the open lake, this is not the tour for you! As we made our way to the stilt houses, we started seeing little speed boats whiz by us. At one point, our engine stopped, but our boat captain was able to fix the engine and get the boat going again. At first, I thought the speed boats were using modified weed whackers as motors, but then realized that the propellers were on the end of the long pole in order to accommodate the various depths of the flood plain. The level of the lake rises dramatically during rainy season and falls during the other seasons.
On our way to the village, we could see that the water level was moderately high- many trees and plants were still growing, but halfway covered with water. Since we were the only people on our boat, the boys walked around and spent a lot of time looking out over the side. Thankfully, all of the tour boats had shades overhead to protect from sun and rain. We were lucky to have good weather- not too hot or rainy during our tour.
It was so fascinating reaching the stilt house village of Kompong Phluk. The first building we came to was the high school. It was a group of stilt buildings with corrugated tin roofs built on tall stilts. Soon we came to individual family’s homes, which typically consisted of a small home high off the water with a ladder to a lower level with open platform and mooring for a single boat.
The bright colors of the homes were stunning, but it was also humbling to see how simply people in these communities lived. The homes were made from a variety of materials, and some seemed to be pieced together by whatever the occupants could scrounge up. To travel between houses in the community, or to the temple or school, small paddle canoes were the main mode of transportation. On several occasions, we saw whole canoe-fuls of school children in uniform paddling their way back to school after lunch. To venture outside of the village, slightly larger motor boats with the long propellers provided most of the transportation. It seemed the centrally located temple was built on reclaimed land where the water does not reach.
After passing through the stilt house section of town, we came to the floating portion of the village, which was really only a few buildings including a small visitor’s center/restaurant/crocodile farm and some homes. Our boat pulled up to the floating structure and our boat driver took a short break while we explored. The boys were especially interested in the crocodile farm, which was really just a large floating wooden box with some wire. There was a pool area for the crocodiles to swim, and then wooden platforms for sunbathing. They were quite small, and I think they were sold for meat and their hides. I just had to make sure Owen did not get too close!
At this point, we had a choice to go on a tour of the mangrove/swamp forest. We had already gone on similar excursions, so we opted out of that extra add-on. I’m not sure what the highlights were of the mangrove tour, but there were so many women sitting in brilliantly colored row boats waiting for customers.
When we hopped back on our boat to head out to the open lake, our driver sat out on the flat front part of the boat. Landon joined him up front, and loved every second of it! He pretended he was captain of the boat and it was quite the scenic ride down the water channel to the open water of the lake. Here, our tour turned around and headed back to the starting point. Our boat captain stopped the boat and we enjoyed the open lake for a few minutes.
It was impossible to see the edges of the lake, it looked like an endless body of water from our vantage point. We took some family photos and pictures with our awesome driver as well. After all of the greenery of the forest and the brightly colored houses, the open lake, aside from its sheer size, was a bit of a let down. It’s just a giant, muddy body of water! There were plants and other debris floating around, but other than that, just muddy water as far as the eye could see. That’s when I was really glad we went to Kompong Phluk so we could see other things besides just floating buildings on the giant lake.
My favorite part of going back to the docks was passing through the town again and seeing more school children in their canoes and fishermen in town with their catches. There was something new and interesting around every corner!
About this time, our boys had been on a boat for over two hours, and were a little restless. Owen walked up to the boat captain and wanted to help drive. Of course, he just plopped him on the seat and gave him the steering wheel. Landon was sitting up front at the time and felt pretty left out, so the boys had to take turns driving the boat on the way back! Owen was not as fond of taking turns, he wanted to drive the whole way!
If you have an extra day in Siem Reap, or just need a half-day break from the ruins, a tour of the lake is a great activity. We had a good time going to Kompong Phluk. It is further away, but there are far fewer tourists and it is not a wallet-draining tourist trap. For kids: bring life jackets if you’re worried about safety. We were not provided with life jackets, but the water was fairly shallow and we kept a close eye on them the whole time. Make sure to bring snacks and water- the small restaurant where we had a few entrees, snacks, and drinks, but there is nothing provided on the boats. There is no point in bringing a stroller here, but a baby carrier or sling for younger toddlers and babies would be helpful if they needed to nap. Seeing how people live in these villages was something that we will never forget.