How To See Tonle Sap Waterbirds In Real Life: Travel Guide

The Tonle Sap lake is one of the biggest freshwater bodies in Asia and is home to the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, one of the most important breeding grounds for some of the most endangered waterbirds in the world such as the Black-Headed Ibis, the Greater and Lesser Adjutants, the Grey-Headed Fish Eagle, the Milky Stork, the Painted Stork, the Spot-billed Pelican and the White-winged Duck.

How To See Tonle Sap Waterbirds In Real Life: Travel Guide

Whether you are an avid bird watcher, or you just want to make the most out of your trip to Cambodia, then you’re in the right place!

Below you’ll find all the information you’ll need on travelling to Tonle Sap. Let’s get into it!

What Is Tonle Sap Lake?

Tonle Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It is home to 3 million people, who live around the lake or on it in floating villages, and their livelihoods come from farming and fishing.

The fishing industry on the lake is crucial not only to the community’s economy but their diet too. Tonle Sap is one of the largest homes of freshwater fish in the world.

Found in the Lower Mekong Basin, the Tonle Sap meets the 120 km long Tonle Sap River which then joins the Mekong River.

The levels of water in this river – which change every season – has a direct impact on the flow of the Tonle Sap River.

This phenomenon is called flow reversal, and means the Tonle Sap River flows in one direction for 6 months out of the year, and flows in the opposite direction for the other six months. This is all depending on the season (dry or wet).

How much water is in the lake will vary greatly according to the season. In the wet season (May to June) the Mekong River will fill the lake with water, flooding its lakes and plains.

Tonle Sap will expand to over 10,000 square km and is 14 meters (46 feet) deep.

The water levels reach their peak in September and October, this is ahead of the dry season in November.

During this season, the lake will measure 2,800 km squared and is just 1 to 2 meters (3 to 6 feet) deep. 

Tonle Sap is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve that is home to a variety of fish species (like the rare Mekong Giant Catfish), the aforementioned endangered bird species, snakes and other reptiles, and a vast amount of vegetation. 

The area surrounding the lake has very fertile soil so it is bursting with vegetation. Freshwater mangroves also surround the lake, called the flooded forest.

What Is There To Do At Tonle Sap Lake?

Tonle Sap is home to lots of floating villages that are definitely worth a visit to see just how the local people live.

While you can make a trip by yourself, we would recommend going with an official tourism company.

This is because many people who organize trips independently are sold overpriced tickets and are asked to pay more during the trip. 

The safe and better option is to book a tour of the floating villages. Let’s take a look at the most popular villages to visit.

Chong Khneas

This village is the gateway to Tonle Sap, is a great tourist spot, and is very accessible. Here, you can tour the village or use it as a base to visit other floating villages.

Kampong Khleang

How To See Tonle Sap Waterbirds In Real Life: Travel Guide

This village is the least visited by tourists due to the fact that it is 2.5 hours away from Chong Khneas.

However, it does have the largest population of all of Tonle Sap’s floating villages.

They are also the best village to visit in terms of responsible tourism and the fact that there is a mix of stilted houses and floating houses there.

The only downside to visiting this village is how far you have to travel to get there.

Kampong Phluk

Built on huge stilts that are underwater in the wet season, this Khmer village is a great place to visit a flooded mangrove forest.

The end of the trip often includes a beautiful sunset experience. It really is breathtaking to see the warm, gleaming sun set on the vast, sparkling lake.

Prek Toal

This is a small floating village that takes you 2 hours to get to via a boat from Chong Khneas.

Prek Toal is a great place for bird watching and to marvel at the flooded forests. It’s also home to bird watching tours and a bird sanctuary. 

When Should You Go To Tonle Sap Lake?

In order to witness the lake in all its majesty, we recommend visiting during the wet season (June to October).

The wildlife is out in force, the forests and plants flood, and the villages bob on the water magically. 

You can visit Tonle Sap in the dry season, but it’s not as spectacular.

Plus, some trips to more far-flung floating villages may be limited or include a combination of water and land travel which may make the trips longer.

It’s worth noting that if you want to visit the bird sanctuaries in particular, then it’s best to visit from December to February.

Birds visit here in droves as other areas dry up.

Visiting later than February may come with complications, as low water levels reduce access to some sites.

Who Lives On The Tonle Sap?

The Tonle Sap is a large source of food for the population of Cambodia. Many families have lived on the floating villages for generations, and have made their livelihoods fishing here.

However, most of the villagers have a Vietnamese background, with their ancestors emigrating from Vietnam to Cambodia 3 to 4 generations ago.

Final Thoughts

We hope our article has given you some insight on the massive and fascinating Tonle Sap Lake, and the people and animals that call it home! With the right planning, you can plan an exciting trip to Tonle Sap.

Olivia Kepner