remarkable Tonle Sap is a river that becomes a freshwater
lake in the centre of Cambodia, the largest in Southeast
Asia, and then flows down to join the Mekong River just
past Phnom Penh. During the dry season, the river feeds
the lake and continues to flow downriver.
When the monsoon
breaks in June, the flow reverses as the Mekong floods
and forces enormous quantities of water uphill into the
lake, swelling it to five times its size and thus acting
as a gigantic natural reservoir.
unique natural phenomenon reduces the force of the torrent
rushing towards the sea, and is a major factor in the steady
expansion of the Mekong Delta.
Fish spawn in
the newly flushed lake, covering a seventh of the country
at its peak. As the waters recede, the lake teems with fish,
some of which have evolved to flop across land to follow
the disappearing water.
highly fertile mud left behind is excellent for rice. A
unique strain of rice has been developed to suit the conditions
– it grows in the rising water reaching a stem length of
The lake, now
a National Park, is a key element in Cambodia's economy.
Approximately two-thirds of the protein consumed in Cambodia
comes from fish from Tonle Sap.
One of the most
endangered species in the world is the Mekong's giant catfish.
It’s the world's largest freshwater fish - a mature catfish
reaches three metres
in length and averages 300kgs in weight. Last year, a fisherman
caught a giant weighing almost 650 pounds - the largest
freshwater fish ever recorded.
It appears to
migrate out of the Tonle Sap Lake and into the mainstream
Mekong River at the end of the rainy season.
The giant catfish
are considered sacred by the Thai people, and special ceremonies
are performed to seek permission from the Water Spirits
and other higher beings to capture these sacred ‘Pla Buek’
The species is
now under grave threat. Although over fishing is a problem,
the main danger is the construction of dams and, in particular,
the Pak Mun dam's impact on the catfish population in the
Mekong river basin.
large crocodile farming industry thrives on and around Tonle
Sap. The main species is the Siamese crocodile, critically
endangered in the wild. The lake also provides a habitat
for 13 different species of turtle.
From a tourism
point of view, the lake offers an alternative, more leisurely,
route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and vice-versa - the
‘express’ boat takes around five hours.
This is an option
for serious travellers: the boats are often overcrowded
and uncomfortable but the views compensate.
1997, the entire Lake was designated as a protected area
under UNESCO's ‘Man and Biosphere’ programme. There are
three ‘core zones’, but the most interesting is the Prek
Toal Bird Sanctuary, not far from Battambang.
The best time
to visit is the dry season, when the water level falls and
the birds are concentrated in a comparatively small area.
Apart from large numbers of storks, pelicans and ibis, there
are many rare species, such as the Painted Stork, the Darter
and the Masked Finfoot.
If you travel
with Haivenu, we can arrange a chartered boat trip for you
to visit both the bird sanctuary and the floating villages
on the lake.