Kompong Khleang – the only Fishing Village in Tonle Sap worth visiting

Kompong Khleang – the largest lakeside community on Tonle Sap

To most visitors in Siem Reap, after visiting the main temples in the Angkor heritage sites, the natural option is to check out the floating villages at the Tonle Sap. There are three main villages that travel guides will bring to your attention – Chong Kneas, Kompong Pluk and Kompong Khleang. My message in this short blog is to highlight why Kompong Khleang is the ONLY village that’s worth your time and money.

Location of the 3 main lakeside villages on Tonle Sap 

Kompong Khleang is the furthest from Siem Reap, about 55km and reachable via a 1 hr 15min drive. It’s the most remote and least touristy village compared to the other two villages (Chong Kneas -22min, Kompong Pluk – 55min). Hordes of scams that you may have read in the travel forums are centred around Chong Kneas and Kompong Pluk. The scams among other things involve exorbitantly marked up ‘donation’ packs to school students which don’t go the children at all.  The solution is to engage a trusted bonafide travel agency to handle all the bookings.

Kompong Khleang

Kampong Khleang lies on the shore of the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. With more than 10,000 residents, it is the largest community on the shore of Tonle Sap. The unique feature is the rolls and rolls of stilted houses. In the dry season, people move over dusty red mud tracks which get submerged underwater in the wet season, when boats take over motorbikes as the water level surges.

This the main scene of Kompong Khleang you see when you arrived at the village grand temple ground during the dry season. The lake’s size, length and water volume varies considerably over the course of a year from an area of around 2,500 kmat the end of the dry season in late-April to an area of up to 16,000 km2 as the Mekong southwest monsoon rainfall peak in September and early-October.

Only during the dry season are you able to see this houses with its exposed stilts. In the wet season, the water level rises to 1-2 metres from the stilted houses.

A villager and her family preparing fishes for sunning. Kompong Khleang sun-dried fishes are a staple dish in Cambodia.

Rolls and rolls of lake fishes laid out for drying in the scorching sun. According to the World Fish Center, roughly 20 kilogrammes of fish are caught in the Tonle Sap for every inhabitant of Cambodia, making it the most intensely fished inland body of water in the world.

The road to Kompong Khleang is mud road which in wet season are submerged as the water level rises above this land.

Firewood being transported to the village. Electricity was introduced recently but it’s unaffordable for most households.

Villager making a fermented fish paste called Prahok (a popular fish paste and core ingredient of Cambodian food).

The fishes are thrown into this bucket to be descaled with the gears run by a noisy motor. The residual sludges are poured down into the river.

Most of the houses in this fishing community are one-room bamboo huts built on wooden stilts. During the dry season, the stilted homes sit far above the water and residents enter by way of long ladders. Stilted house owners are generally more financially well-off compared to those living on floating houses on the lake.

Workers repairing the wooden houses stilts during the dry season, to ensure it remains secure for the wet season.

Fishermen going out to the lake to harvest their catch. Villagers sleep early but wake up early about 3-4am to commence their daily work.

A fishing boat with a huge amount of fishing traps on the way to the lake.

Taking care of their children frequently involves bringing them along on the fishing trip.

Looking at the age of some of the children manning the boat, you quickly get the idea that there is no minimum age or licence needed for operating one.

A fisherman with basic fishing net intently looking at us as we cruise by him.

Roots from the water hyacinths are a bane, frequently clogging up fishermen netting.

From the time children start their first steps, they are trained in water skills and when they can lift an oar, they are ready for paddling to and from school.

A fisherman feeling the lake bed for shells, which are a common street snack in Siem Reap.

A fisherman preparing to cast his net but will not do so until our boat goes pass it.

Tonle Sap

As one of the world’s most varied and productive ecosystems, it’s often referred to as the “heartbeat of Cambodia” signifying its vital role the country food supply. More than 100 varieties of waterbirds including several threatened and endangered species, over 200 species of fish, as well as crocodiles, turtles, macaques, otter and other wildlife inhabit the flooded mangrove forests. The Lake supply more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia.  In 1997, this biodiverse lake with large interconnected eco-regions was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve .

Fishing traps in the lake. In total, more than three million people live on the lake’s shores, 90% of them make a living from fishing or agriculture. The fish that come from Tonlé Sap supply three-quarters of the animal protein to locals in a country where almost 40% of children under five are chronically malnourished.

The homes on the lake are designed to float so that when the waters rise, their homes rise with it. The floating homes, generally comprised of wood and bamboo, tend to be much smaller than the stilted homes. They’re safe in the dry season when the water is low, but rougher tides during the rainy season can make them unstable. Some have small motors attached, but most of them float freely along the lake and relocate as it swells and recedes.

Conclusion

A visit to Kompong Khleang during the dry season will make your visit to Siem Reap more memorable while providing a ‘balance’ from being zoned out from too many temples visits. You get a better understanding how nature impacts human beings and vice versa apart from witnessing how a community adapts and survive in a harsh environment. For a fruitful outing at the Tonle and Kompong Khleang, do be reminded again to engage a reliable travel guide to avoid scams.

Thanks for coming along the pixels journey, for some quick tips how to better your Siem Reap adventure, you might check out my blog here.

Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author. The trip is non-sponsored.