5 ways living on water is different from living on land // Tonle Sap, Cambodia

With all due respect to the Tonle Sap, we will begin with a very brief geeky introduction of the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

The Tonle Sap stretches southeast to join the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. It is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and it changes in form depending on the wet and dry seasons. You can test your map-reading skills below 🙂 

The Tonle Sap meets the Mekong River at Phnom Penh!

Every year, monsoon rains force so much water down the Mekong River that the Tonle Sap River changes direction and flows back into the lake, swelling it 5-times its original size during the dry season.

When the rainy season ends, the river flows south again, draining back into the Mekong, slowly decreasing in size. 

The size of the Tonle Sap changes during the dry and wet season

Lives on the Tonle Sap

The diverse communities living on the Tonle Sap are one of the most unique groups of people in the world as there aren’t many communities that live almost their entire lives on water.

Some others include the Bajau community off the coast of Malaysia, Belén community in Peru, floating communities on Inle Lake in Myanmar, and well, we can also include the people who live in (very pretty) houseboats in Amsterdam. 

Same same but different

Living on these changing waters is vastly different from life that most of us are familiar with – from brushing your teeth, shopping at a convenience store, to moving house. But are we that different?

Below are some observations, as experienced by an Actxplorer staff who made Tonle Sap her floating home for 7 days 6 nights. She was on assignment with some students from National University of Singapore’s Geography department and Pannasastra University’s Environmental Science department. The views below are Actxplorer’s, and not of the universities! 

1.When nature calls

Instead of a complicated flushing system, the natural ebb and flow of the river currents will carry our human discharge (of various forms) away either upstream (during the wet season) or downstream (during the dry season). You can possibly identify the change in season by watching where your poo flows to… 

Below are some of the toilets we encountered:


Stand on the planks and you’re ready to go
In one of the home stays, the toilet is just a hole in the kitchen area (which was right next to the living room)

2. Taking a shower

We need water to shower, and since water is everywhere, you can technically shower everywhere. But, quite obviously avoid the area where you’ve just pooped at. The locals do it quite ordinarily – scooping water with a pail from the river, soap and shampoo as per normal. The ladies shower wrapped up tightly in a sarong.

When we were there, our hosts brought us to an area of deeper (and cleaner) water to clean off (#burden). Swimming and showering (with clothes on!) is very fun combination (see below). Much more fun then standing in a shower. But, it does bring to question the effect of the chemicals from our shampoo and soap on the quality of water (you’ll find out later that there are more worrying things in the water to worry about). Falling rain from the skies would help too but when we were there, it always rained at unfriendly hours (late into the night) for showering.

Swimming + Showering in the river. Surrounded by the flooded forests.

3. Food & Floating 7-Elevens

Fish is the main source of protein for the people living on the Tonle Sap. The lack of refrigeration in most households results in the need to ferment them to keep it edible. The result is – Prahok, which is very salty, and needs to be taken with rice or fresh vegetables.

Prahok with minced meat

Other meat dishes that were unforgettable include barbecued field mice which were caught by our host’s son, and frog. Our hosts were kind enough to ask if we wanted those for dinner, before buying it from the floating wet markets that came by the house every morning.

Barbecued paddy field mice; tastes like chicken actually

Floating 7-Elevens

With no land to walk on to get to your favourite candy stores, satisfying a craving is so much more difficult (which can be a good thing). But, everyday – especially in the mornings and evenings, multiple floating shops come by the houses, bringing breakfast (dish that tasted like laksa – noun bun chouk), fruits, snacks, balut, and ice-flavoured drinks. The iced coffee made by Tonle Sap’s floating baristas deserves a special mention for fuelling many students in their research.

The far-away call of the vendor, or the sight of an elaborately-filled boat brings such joy and excitement unknown to me before my stay on the Tonle Sap.

Shopping time!
Steamed corn and shaved coconuts. So good!
Making noun bun chouk – a traditional Khmer noodle dish that tastes like a mix of Singapore’s meesiam & laksa
Floating beverage store that makes lovely iced coffee
Human Fuel = Iced coffee with milk

4. Getting rid of trash

It is extreeemely convenient and tempting to toss that canned drink and sweet wrapper into the river. Understandably so, since there isn’t a trash collecting system in place, and the river is the most accessible ‘trash bin’ for the locals. Similarly, as mentioned before, human waste are not treated before being discharged into the river. 

Waste management is an issue faced by the community – it contaminates the very water that gives life to the people. It is a likely culprit resulting in public health issues such as diarrhoea and cholera. Below we can see an island of trash that originated as trash from a market during the dry season. When the water levels rose, the trash accumulated into an ‘island’. Apparently, rats dwell in them… 


a very wide variety of trash can be seen in the ‘trash island’

A group of NUS Geography and Pannasastra University Environmental Science students will be conducting more extensive research, and through active collaboration with the locals, they hope to implement and manage actual projects that can educate and help them understand the consequences that throwing trash directly into the river can bring.

We will hopefully share more in due time!

5. Keeping Pets

Just as on land, happiness comes in the form of dogs and cats (and chickens). But one distinct difference is the cleanliness of the dogs living on the floating houses versus those on land in Cambodia. They are MUCH cleaner likely because they don’t have much space to run about. But they’re equally, if not more loved, and loveable.

Well, the 5th observation made is probably my excuse to feature the cute pets owned by the hosts of my home-stay 🙂

“now… how do I get back to the house?”
kitten and dog waiting patiently to be fed 🙂

This post hopefully gives more of us an insight into the lived experiences of the people living on the Tonle Sap.

If you would like to know more about our experience on the Tonle Sap in Chhnok Tru commune, drop us a comment below or LIKE our Facebook Page.

You can also find out more about other unique activities in Cambodia that are featured on our website! We are continually adding more social projects and unique activities in SEA on our site 🙂


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