The heat is withering. If not for the breeze whipping in from the hurtling tuk tuk, I might be drowning in my own sweat right now. The tarmac slowly disappears as we jolt onto a rutted track an hours drive from Siem Reap in central Cambodia.

The central plains stretch for miles in every direction, the dust of the dry season swirls along the roadside, as we gradually descend lower through a winding series of streams, rivers, and muddy ditches. We are in search of one of the least visited and most recently ‘discovered’ floating villages along the shores of Tonle Sap Lake in central Cambodia, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia.

Tonle Sap Lake 01 - James MacDonald

Past a checkpoint and some lounging guards, our driver skids to a stop along a nearly dry riverbed that is crowded with the skeletons of old boats. Peppered among them are small, pencil thin motorboats. Skipping down to the water comes a boy of maybe nine and the boats diver, a thin teen with spiked hair. Squeezing in, the boy skips across the gunnels of the boat and begins to push us off the shore, into the pea soup coloured water. It has not rained in months and the water levels are feet, if not inches, as we glide past row on row of boats.

Tonle Sap Lake 03 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 04 - James MacDonald

Turing a sharp corner in the river, we come upon a site plucked from the movies. Towering over our boat are stilted houses, hundreds of them. Lining the banks of the river as far as we are able to see. Not quite the floating village I had in mind, yet during the rains of the monsoon season, Tonle Sap Lake goes from a depth of just a couple of feet, to dozens. Increasing in area from 2700km to over 16000km. This occurs when the giant Mekong river reverses its flow, and swollen from the run off and melt from the Himalayas, inundates the lake and the surrounding lowlands, flooding the region and turning this village into a floating oasis.

Tonle Sap Lake 08 - James MacDonald

Continuing out towards the lake, evidence of why this village is here is everywhere. Even as the dry season sucks up the water, fish and shrimp are in abundance. With the coming of the rainy season and the floods, this bounty increases even more.

Punching our way through the last of the slime and boat lined river, we open up into the vastness of Tonle Sap Lake to witness an incredible view that you would never expect to find in the interior of South East Asia.

Tonle Sap Lake 11 - James MacDonald

Tourism along the lake has been slow, as the main focus of Siem Reap is Angkor Wat and her temples. Yet our driver knew exactly where to go and the price was reasonable, $20 dollars Canadian round trip and $20 dollars per person for boat, driver, and ‘pusher’ (you’re going to run into a lot of boats, shoals, and sandbars). Be advised though that the company that does the dredging of the rivers will try to have a guard accompany you. Politely decline as they will try and garner a pretty ridiculous tip from you afterwards (a tip is nice but not expected, and anything above $15-$20 is way to much).

How to get to Tonle Sap Lake

Getting to Tonle Sap Lake itself is relatively easy. On your own or via a tuk tuk, you drive south from Siem Reap along highway 63. The highway will end at the shores of the lake. Getting to this particular floating village of Kompong Pluk is a different challenge, however, and I recommend hiring a tuk tuk to get you to and from the village. Most drivers will know its location and it is easy to flag one down either from your hotel or from the street. Drive east on highway 6 for about 45 minutes. Then make a right – this is however is where the local knowledge comes into play as the village and road are unmarked on the highway and if flying solo, directions will need to be asked in order to get to the correct road that leads toward the community of Kompong Pluk.

Tonle Sap Lake 02 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 06 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 07 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 09 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 10 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 12 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 13 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 14 - James MacDonald

Tonle Sap Lake 16 - James MacDonald


Photos by James MacDonald

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James MacDonald

James MacDonald

James MacDonald is a Canadian photographer, photojournalist, cinematographer and multimedia producer who has been bouncing around Asia, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Americas. James first picked up a camera in 2004 following high school, as he traveled and worked his way through Europe. While completing university and working more and more behind a camera, he soon realized that a history and anthropology degree could only hold his interest for so long. Following a year working as the photo and graphics editor for the University of Guelph's newspaper the Ontarion, an internship with Canadian Geographic Magazine in Ottawa, and then an internship with The StarPhoenix in Saskatoon, he moved back to Toronto to begin freelancing full time, and has been lucky enough to be making pictures since. James moved to Asia in the fall of 2013 to continue freelancing, as well as to work on and develop long term regional stories and projects. He is currently based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.

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