The Khmer On The Water

In an annual phenomenon unique to the region, the natural flow of the Tonle Sap river is reversed back into the lake of the same name, by the influx of the monsoon swollen Mekong into the South China Sea!

This expands the area of the lake several fold, making it the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia….for a while! And sustains the livelihoods of thousands of people living off its bounty in ‘floating’ villages.Kompong Phluk, Cambodia

Chong Kneas is the most popular of the villages, owing to its proximity to Siem Reap. We chose to visit the farther and less touristy cluster of villages called Kompong Phluk – The Harbour of Tusks – to get a more authentic feel for the daily life of these denizens of the river. It involved an hours drive from Siem Reap, and a further half hour by boat to get there.

A floating village sounds romantic. But the reality is far from the truth. A world away from the riverine communities of the West. While the stilt houses are extremely picturesque, particularly bathed in the glow of evening light, life on the water seems hard, and the considerable revenue from the remnants of the glorious Khmer kingdom, does not appear to be percolating down to these poor descendants.Kompong Phluk , Cambodia

It is hard not to feel like an intruder, Β when you are unsure your dollars are helping in any way.Β Hard as well to comprehend the presence of champagne sunset cruises combined with a tour of these villages!Β 

We transferred to a small canoe for a short ride through the pristine mangrove forests – they called them floating forests – before continuing on to witness the most spectacular sunset ever, on the magnificent lake further down!

A note of warning for those trying to do this on their own at sunset. There is little or no transport back into town at that hour. So make sure you have a vehicle waiting. A return trip by car should cost in the region of US$70 – 80. I suggest making payment once you are safely back ‘home’, or you might have to contend with a loooong walk back.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

81 thoughts on “The Khmer On The Water

      1. Set my reservations please. I did check my Gravatar like you suggested and both blogs are listed. Who knows??? πŸ˜‰

  1. You’re so right that we often see poor and simple places as picturesque and romantic – and behind the beautiful sunsets and sunrises … is a hard way of life … where the people struggle, maybe not having fresh water and shortage of food … young men risk their life through diving after corals and pearls. It was a pleasure to read about the reality for those people. Stunning photos about a harsh reality.

  2. Your photos are striking, as always, Madhu, and I appreciate your thoughts about the places you visit. That sunset shot is National Geographic-worthy.

  3. such beautiful photos of a unique way of life … i share your uneasiness about tourism with champagne cruises in such a place … but i am glad you were there to bring it to us dear madhu πŸ™‚

    1. I assume the bubbly isn’t popped until they are well on their way to the lake, but still…… Thanks for reading Christine.

  4. I’m sure life in these floating villages is not romantic, Madhu, but it sure is picturesque. I never saw these villages when I was in Siem Reap, although I did see many houses on stilts on dry land. I wish I had known about them. Your photos are beautiful. It looks like the lighting was perfect. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Cathy.
      Our guide miscalculated the time and we had to rush through the village a bit in order to catch the sunset. But it did make for great light in the photos πŸ™‚

  5. This seems like a wonderful trip to see this. Are you serious about the champagne cruises? That sounds a bit much! Wonderful photos.

  6. Thank you for enlightening us about the realities of villages like these. They do seem so romantic and picturesque. It’s hard to remember how hard life must be for them here. The champagne cruises do seem silly and out-of-lace, don’t they? But at the same time, I’d love to see it for myself…

    1. I am constantly at odds with my desire to see these places personally and the right and wrong of it Juliann. My insatiable curiosity wins in the end πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks for yet another stunning tour Madhu and your photo’s are absolutely amazing. The sunset is my most favourite! *big hugs*

  8. Thanks for the wonderful tips Madhu. This is something we might have to consider once we get to Cambodia. Your photos are stunning and that sunset…WOW! πŸ™‚

    1. You should allow yourself enough time for this Luann. Preferably bookend it with the main monuments to avoid temple fatigue πŸ™‚

      1. I have heard about the temple fatigue so we will definitely consider all your suggestions. Thanks! πŸ™‚

  9. Excellent captured photo, very interesting written – the houses are very charming maybe more as (like us) a viewer than for living – I don’t know..? πŸ™‚

  10. As usual you’ve given me another virtual tour to be remembered. Very true that most times we skim over the beauty and miss the reality below the veneer.

    Spectacular champagne shots and breathtaking sunset.

    Peace, Eric

    1. Oh no, these aren’t champagne shots at all! I thought a champagne cruise would have been the height of insensitivity! But glad you enjoyed this travelogue Eric πŸ™‚

      1. No worries, Madhu – I was refering to the golden lights as ‘champagne’ shots – the even sheen remindered me of champagne sunsets πŸ™‚

  11. Hi Madhu, we also visited Kompong Phluk and thought it was very fascinating to see a different way of life. Its interesting how they adapt their lives into the ebb and flow of the lake/river. It may look like such a big struggle in our eyes but it is also a testament to the great resilience of these people.
    Your photos are beautiful.

    1. No denying their courage and resilience. That is what we went to see. But they didn’t seem overly enthused to see prying tourists. And that was the only place I missed seeing ready smiles. Appreciate your visit and comment Marisol πŸ™‚

  12. A floating village sounds romantic. But the reality is far from romantic = not very comfortable – I hope you made your way back not swimming because the water taxi was gone?

    1. Oh no, I am too cautious to not have a car waiting Frizz! I was thinking of adventurous backpackers when I added that warning πŸ™‚

  13. I could not imagine how hard a life it would be living in a floating village. Your photos and words bring home this way of life. Beautiful sunset.


  14. Yes, they certainly do look very ramshackle, and I know exactly what you mean about feeling somewhat uncomfortable as a perceived ‘wealthy’ tourist visiting such poverty stricken ‘tourist attractions’. Your photos are wonderful, and that sunset really fabulous.

  15. We saw some of these types of villages in Malaysia. I know how you feel, seeing them whilst on a holiday. It’s hard not to feel guilty.

  16. These pictures are stunning. I can’t help but wonder about these houses on stilts, and how they would stand up to the likes of a Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Ondoy.

    the floating forest looks very interesting. Are you able to boat among them? Or is it shallow in those parts.

    I just love the sunset.

    1. Thank you Mary-Ann.
      I think their problem is the receding of waters during the dry season rather than typhoons, since they are well inland from the sea. They move to temporary houses right on the lake during the dry season, returning here when the water level rises!
      The sunset there was just spectacular. The reason why I dedicated a whole post to the sunsets on the Mekong πŸ™‚

  17. We took the ferry from Siem Reap to Phnom Phen and sailed by many of these floating villages. The simplicity of life and diversity of uses these boats get put too was amazing. My favourite was a floating church. Beautifully painted in bright yellow πŸ™‚

  18. The photos are fascinating, Madhu, but it’s not a lifestyle I could see myself pursuing in a million years. Spoilt Westerner that I am. Thanks for the insight.

  19. Madhu, you do such an amazing job of bringing the world to your readers. I love seeing it through your eyes. The colors and traditions of the world enjoyed while in the comfort of my favorite chair. I am a homebody at heart. Margie

  20. I saw a stilted village in Ghana but nowhere near as tall as that. Its picturesque but I can imagine the reality of living there is a lot of hardship. As for champagne cruises, well such displays of wealth are horrid, the only people to benifit are the rich entrepreneurs usually.The way you travelled is the best way.

  21. In a way, I felt like I’d seen these places in my country of birth. Despite of poverty, people smile like their millionaires, something I don’t see in a country supposedly rich. People there don’t talk about stress, they simply try to live life in whatever way they can.

  22. Beautiful post, Madhu. Still a big regret on my part to not have seen these places in Southeast Asia. I’ll do virtual traveling through your posts for now. πŸ˜‰

  23. Brilliant Madhu the pictures and the exciting write-up. The sunset especially is magical.
    Thanks aplenty πŸ™‚

  24. What a gorgeous sunset, Madhu. The homes on stilts do look romantic. We often don’t realize what lies beneath the surface of communities we visit. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Beautiful shots, Madhu. Thoughtful post, too. I wonder how some (of those in picturesque places like this) would feel about being like fish in an aquarium.

  26. Fascinating to see and learn about these villages.
    The sunset photo is absolutely breathtaking! Thank you for this thoughtful post, Madhu.

  27. I agree… I normally think about their daily lives as you do and often forget about taking pictures of them or the place. The sunset is a breathtaking shot.

  28. That golden sunset glow does romanticise the place, doesn’t it? Extraordinary way of life, really – and i’m afraid i was so excited by the hydrology I had to keep reminding myself what it meant for the people who live there. I didn’t see this village, but i don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of the floating basket ball court next to the school in a village we passed crossing The Lake to get to the Mekong proper – forlorn, hopeful, bizarre πŸ™‚

  29. I always find it interesting when people want to hop off to see something they think is going to be wonderful because they’ve seen it in a travel brochure. Little do we know of the hardships they have to endure in these floating homes and in their lives. We visit for a day and imagine romantic sunsets and feel life is 100% glorious. I was pleased to read your very informative and honest report of how things really are including your final warning. We who trvael look quite different to those we go and see on these journey’s. We have to respect their opinions of who they think we are even if it involves negative inconveniences.
    Very nice photo’s to go with excellent information.

  30. Reblogged this on Sherry's Space and commented:
    You know when you see the world through your eyes, you see something most other people don’t see at all. And when I am looking at your world through my eyes, iIsee what you see. It is magical and amazing

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