Treasures of Cambodia – Visiting Tonle Sap Lake

(This article has affiliate links to products which we may make commission from at no extra cost to you.)

The tranquil and exceptional Tonle Sap Lake is one Cambodia’s most amazing attractions. Keep reading to know all about the Tonle Sap Lake.

As culturally diverse as it is, Cambodia is home to a lot more things than cultural heritage and rich tradition. There is definitely no shortage of places you’ll want to visit when you’re on your next trip there, and one of the prime ones is the Tonle Sap lake or, to be more specific, the entire lake and river system.

Not only that is extremely significant to Cambodia’s past and cultural heritage, but it’s also a natural phenomenon like you’ve never seen before. Moreover, it’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia (at least for one part of the year), and is the home to various species of wildlife, both in and around the lake.

Let’s take a look at what makes this lake exceptional and everything it has to offer as a unique experience for visitors and locals.

What is the Tonle Sap Lake?

Even though it is technically still a lake, the Tonle Sap lake is truly massive, and it might seem to some like an inland ocean. It covers 250 km in length and 100 km across, but what’s surprising is that it is only 10 meters deep. With this in mind, it can hold up to 80 km3 of water, which is still impressive. Note, however, that the actual size and depth vary quite a bit, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The lake itself has quite a bit of history surrounding it. Back in the 12th century, the Khmer empire was at its peak in Cambodia, and the Tonle Sap lake actually kept the population supplied with water and food. We’re talking about a population of over a million people, which is rather impressive. It meant just as much as the Nile did to the Egyptians, if not more. If nothing else, it was an assurance that the Khmer people would never lack the essential means of survival – food or water.

Tonle Sap

And considering that they were pretty much set in this regard, the Khmer people could dedicate their attention to silversmithing, silk weaving, and building the staggering amount of massive monuments that surround the area. They actually used the lake during the actual building of the monuments which is another way they relied on the life-giving waters of the lake.

The Breathing Tonle Sap Lake

We mentioned that the lake itself is a natural phenomenon, and it’s a rather interesting one at that. The lake empties its waters into the Mekong River, a river that flows 4,350 kilometres southwards. It stretches from the Tibetan highlands to the South China Sea.

However, the weather conditions aren’t identical during the year in these areas, and between May and October, monsoon winds bring higher rainfall to parts of Southeast Asia. In these periods, the Mekong starts to swell, a little at a time. Come June, and it has quite a lot of water. And when this happens, the waters of the Tonle Sap river don’t flow in the Mekong, but instead, flow backwards into the lake.

This makes the Tonle Sap river the only one in the world that, seasonally, flows both ways. It reverses its direction twice a year and significantly changes the water level of the Tonle Sap lake. When the flow changes its direction, the lake fills up in an instant. And this is when you have millions of fish flowing in from the Mekong, and ships can finally enter. All of those tall, stilted houses that sit on what seems to be a swamp, now make sense. And when September rolls around, the water level increases to over four times the original depth. Remember when we said that the Khmer people used the lake to build massive monuments? The change of current allowed them to move massive building materials to where they needed to go.

To make things even more interesting, the Tonle Sap river that flows into the Mekong is the lake’s only outlet. When you have that only outlet filling up the lake with water, the surface of the lake expands, making the lake over four times larger than usual, going from 3,300km2 to over 12,300km2. And for those five months each year, the Tonle Sap lake becomes the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. This is known as the high-water season.

When this happens, a lot of areas that are usually forest and shrub become inundated. This makes it perfect breeding grounds for those millions of fish that have freshly arrived, and prime examples include catfish and carp. When the waters drop a few months later, some of the fish will survive in small ponds. This makes them easy prey for fishermen, and overall, the lake is one of the most productive fishing lakes in the world.

Tonle Sap

This happens in November when the pressure on the Mekong river is reduced. When this happens, the Tonle Sap reverses its course once again, and in Phnom Penh, this is when the three-day Water Festival happens, to mark the occasion.

When Should You Visit?

Of course, if you’re looking to visit the Tonle Sap lake, everything we said above might leave you a bit confused. With things changing pretty much constantly, when is the best time to visit the lake?

Well, some might say this depends on who you ask, but we’d say it depends on what you want to see. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, and want to experience things like exotic birds concentrated in small areas, the dry season is when you should go. Of course, accessing the lake and the many floating villages is difficult during this time because boats can’t really move around too much. If that’s something you’re willing to deal with, anywhere from December to April should be good.

However, many people would rather prefer to be able to move around during the rainy, high-water season. This is when you have the opportunity to hop on a cruise ship and discover a fascinating part of Cambodian culture. It is during this period that you can access all those houses that seem too high when the lake is low, and you’ll be able to experience floating villages.

Of course, at the end of the day, it’s all up to you, and what you prefer to do, as well as how you’d like to travel. You can visit at pretty much any moment, but make sure you’re well prepared.

Organizing Your Trip

One thing to note is that you shouldn’t try to do the trip on your own. Not only will you find plenty of scams that might seem believable before it’s too late, but it’s easy to spend a lot more than you should. Yes, tuk-tuks and small boats are all fun, but not when you’re overpaying by a lot.

Therefore, the best way to do this would be to go on an organized tour. Whether it’s a cruise, or any other kind of tour where everything is agreed upon in advance, make sure you know what you’re being offered, and you aren’t being ripped off. Moreover, these remote regions call for a bit of luxury and safety to enjoy a hustle-free trip and an enjoyable experience.

And last but not least, however, and whenever you decide to go, make sure you enjoy the phenomenon that is the Tonle Sap lake, as it is truly an experience like no other, both from a natural, and a cultural standpoint.

Read More


Anjali Wadhwa (cheerfultrails) is a travel consultant and enthusiast who has traveled to 15+ countries. She shares about her explorations through her writings. You will find detailed itineraries, best travel tips and well experienced recommendations for food, transportation and hotels on her blog.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: