Rhythm of life on Tonle Sap
A family at Chong Kneas village on Tonle Sap Lake. Picture: Rob Dunlop

It's one of Cambodia's natural wonders, Tonle Sap Lake. And it's where you'll see the direct effects of Asia's mighty Mekong River, when forests are flooded and floating villages have to anchor elsewhere.

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The village of Chong Kneas, population 5000, truly has no fixed address. Well, for six months of the year anyway.

During the rainy season, June to October, the 4350km Mekong River, which flows from Tibet to Vietnam, swells just near Phnom Penh. The rush of water is so strong that it reverses the flow of the connected Tonle Sap River upstream for 100km until it spills into Tonle Sap Lake.

The lake expands from its dry season size of 2500 square kilometres to about 10,000 square kilometres, rising from about 2m to 10m.

The floating village cluster then spreads out, moving inland afloat the seasonal waters, where the tops of forest trees begin to look like water shrubs.

When the dry season begins around November and the waters recede, the village regroups and moves back to the edge of the lake. All part of the rhythm of life for the villagers of Chong Kneas.

To celebrate this reversal of flow back towards the Mekong River, locals take to the water in decorated boats and party for the Water Festival.

A fascinating cruise around the village reveals floating shops, markets, churches, schools, nurseries, fisheries, a visitor centre and a crocodile farm.

Merchants, whose small colourful boats are loaded up with goods to sell, weave around the village "streets". One boat is loaded up with hats, sweets and petrol.

Young children in boats approach tourist boats for photo opportunities. Wrapped by a snake, they pose for cameras then put out their hands. One of the boats is oared by another child, except he's missing one arm. Not all tourists dig into their pockets.

Tonle Sap Lake is remarkable in other ways too. It's South-East Asia's largest lake and one of Asia's largest freshwater fisheries, providing 75 per cent of Cambodia's total fish catch.

The lake's status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve aims to help sustain the fishing activities, which needs to feed about three million people.

There's little doubt why Cambodia's natural wonder is also called the Great Lake.


FACT FILE

• A visit to the Tonle Sap Lake is about 20 minutes by road from Siem Reap, making it a great side-trip from the temple capital. Boat tours are easy to book and cost about $10 for a two-hour trip.

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