Tonle Sap Lake (also known as the Great Lake) runs through the heart of Cambodia, situated on the central plains. It is a lake that is big enough to almost be mistaken for an ocean (almost!). It is also the biggest freshwater lake in the whole of South East Asia!
If you visit the Great Lake you will find thriving fishing communities made up of floating villages perching on bamboo stilts which skim the surface of the gentle waves.
The lake changes vastly according to the season. During rainy season expect your journey time across the lake to increase as the water levels rise with the mighty Mekong River flooding down its channels and pouring into the lake.
During the dry season you will see the water levels retreat (your boat may even get stuck in the muddy dunes and groups of young children will come running over eager to help push you out of this muddy fix). The dry season allows you to glimpse the depths the lake will soon reach. The houses perch upon thin and incredibly high wooden bamboo poles which will latterly become submerged by the rising waters. At the peak of the dry season the lake is 4-6 times smaller than it ordinarily is.
Tonle Sap Lake has enormous significance for Cambodians. It is home to more than 200 varieties of fish providing food to more than 3 million people. It also provides a valuable resource that sources livelihoods for the people living on and around the lake, and it acts as a flood mediator for the Mighty Mekong (with its importance thereby reaching far beyond Cambodia).
Most residents are self sufficient. Vibrant communities have transformed these waters. There are schools, petrol stations even, lots of chickens!!, markets and even karaoke bars to be found bobbing away. The communities that perch on the water or on the waters edge are testimony to the resilience of the Cambodian people fighting for survival. The lake flows through the lives of these communities. Boats weave through the floating houses. Children play in the water. Women dry shell fish. Boats laden with fruit furrow past. Steaming pots of bubbling broths boil away filling the air with delicious smells which permeate the heavy lingering smell of burning wood that hangs throughout most Cambodian villages. Whilst the people are certainly poor there is a deep vibrancy to these communities. There is also an underlying sadness (it is impossible to forget and not see the echoes of the Khmer Rouge genocide which was not so distant that many Cambodians still carry these memories first hand).
I accessed the lake from the north, a short drive of about 20 km from Siem Reap. Be prepared for a bumpy journey. I do mean a very bumpy journey from a road that just keeps on giving!