This great lake covering 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) is not only the largest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia, it’s also a UNESCO-designated biosphere due to its remarkable natural features. The flow of water in Tonlé Sap changes direction twice during the course of the year, expanding and contracting with the seasons.
Most travelers choose to experience Tonlé Sap by boat, whether en route between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh or during a daytime or sunset dinner cruise. Depending on the option chosen, a sightseeing boat ride might include a visit to Chong Khneas floating village of stilted houses, a fish and crocodile farm, and a meal at a traditional Khmer floating restaurant.
Those with an interest in the lake’s biodiversity can opt for a day trip to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, a biosphere reserve that’s home to more than 150 bird species.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Tonlé Sap is a must-see for adventure travelers and first-time visitors.
- Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat when cruising the lake.
- Many boat tours on the lake include hotel pickup and drop-off.
- Tonlé Sap day trips can last anywhere from four to nine hours, depending on the option chosen.
How to Get There
Most tours of the lake depart from Chong Khneas, located 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) south of Siem Reap. The easiest way to get to the lake is on a guided tour.
When to Get There
From November to May—the country’s dry season—Tonlé Sap empties into the Mekong River, making the lake’s natural features much less spectacular. If you want to get out on the lake when it’s at its largest, plan to visit during the rainy season (August and September) when the waters reverse and the enormous lake forms. Water levels are at their lowest between April and June. The best bird viewing happens between December and April.
The People of Tonlé Sap
Spend some time on the lake, and you’ll quickly realize that most residents of the stilted houses and floating villages are fishermen. Many of these families are ethnic Vietnamese who’ve been in the trade for decades. For the most authentic view of life on the lake, head farther afield to the villages near Kampong Chhnang and Pursat.