Kayaking on Cambodia's Tonlé Sap

A unique, abundantly fertile freshwater habitat and protected Biosphere Reserve, Tonlé Sap feeds hundreds of thousands; the local people, the lake's huge waterbird colonies, and many Cambodians further afield who rely on its output for food. Swelling to over 4,600 square miles in wet season, Tonlé Sap is best explored by boat, and we think kayaks are better still - peacefully gliding through the water, they’re ideal for bird-watching, and paying polite calls on fishing villages without polluting the shoals they depend on.

What to expect on Tonlé Sap...

Kayaking on Tonlé Sap is quite different to travelling in a crowd of tourists - you don’t feel like you’re intruding on local life, and - more selfishly - you’ll enjoy free reign over abundant photo opportunities, with your guide able to show you the best vantage points for gorgeous shots of the dramatic natural landscape and its diverse inhabitants.

During the dry season, Tonlé Sap is comparatively small, and flanked by rich green forest and a fertile agricultural floodplain. In June, the rains start to fall and the lake’s waters spread to cover the land for miles around, rising to the treetops and depositing nutritious sediment that’s perfect for next season’s rice seedlings. The flooded forests make perfect sheltered spawning grounds for fish (Tonlé Sap is one of the most productive inland fishing areas on Earth) and this swarming feast of small-fry supports the survival of hundreds of other species.
Snakes, turtles, otters and near-extinct Siamese crocodiles can all be spotted - some lucky travellers may even see the legendary Mekong giant catfish, which grows up to ten feet long. The area is particularly famous for its abundant waterbirds, with storks, ibises, and rarities like the spot-billed pelican and grey-headed fish eagle amongst the potential ticks on your twitcher list.

Alongside the wildlife, of course, live Tonlé Sap’s human residents; many catch fish or grow rice, with a number turning into guides for interested visitors - ours in particular know every trick in the book when it comes to getting the most out of your experience.

Accompanied by your expert local guide, you’ll start your kayaking experience in Mé Chrey - a ‘floating’ village at the lake’s northern end, with stilted houses that tower overhead in the dry season, or sit with water lapping the front porch when it’s wet. Here you’ll get the chance to meet some of the villagers, with your guide acting as translator to explain how these determined people live and work in their unique setting.

Once aboard your kayak, you’ll glide off across the lake to enjoy the scenery and look for wildlife. If water levels are high, you’ll also get the unusual opportunity to paddle through the flooded forest, birds peering down at you through the branches. Stopping at various farms and enjoying a picnic lunch en route, pay a visit to the 200 year old Cheu Khmao Pagoda, before heading back to dry land for the return trip to Siem Reap or nearby Koh Kong.

Location: Central Cambodia

Duration: half a day

Accommodation: your choice of Siem Reap or Koh Kong hotel

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Anna says...

'Tonlé Sap is astonishing - its people, creatures and geography - and kayaking is easily the nicest way to explore it'

Good to know...

This kayaking experience is gentle but can be tiring on the arms - a support boat will be nearby in case you need to stop paddling.

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