Exploring the Floating Villages of Tonle’ Sap Lake

Tonle' Sap Lake
Tonle’ Sap Lake. Gregory Williams photos.

Tonle’ Sap Lake: A Unique Experience in Cambodia

By Gregory Williams

I walk toward a colorful boat tied to a questionable dock. A baby tucked into the arms of her mother is to my right. They areIMGP3163 leaning against a pole made from a tree. It is part of a small, thatched shelter protecting locals from the sun.

The baby greets me with a smile as I walk down the stairs leading to the water. The captain of our long tail boat helps each passenger come aboard. He is a seasoned waterman; the strength of his hand tells of a long life navigating these waters.

The boat is a colorful mix of artistic paintings, with trinkets strategically placed in a manner that speaks to his culture. The motor is visibly mounted on the stern and is old and well-traveled. Once aboard, the captain takes charge and we back away from the dock.’

Largest Lake in Southeast Asia

Tonle’ Sap in Cambodia is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. This massive biosphere is a UNESCO site and home to many endangered species. It is also home to several floating villages and a way of life that would deter most who daydream of a lakefront home someday.


We cruise along a narrow section of lake dotted with clumps of trees and plants. The deafening sound of open exhaust pipes on several boats echo off the corrugated metal sheets that are used for siding on the homes. Young men race each other; weaving between small canoes making their way across this turbulent waterway.

Smoke coming from a makeshift chimney on top of a shack rolls down the roof and settles onto the water. People are sitting on wooden porches. Fish nets, pots, and buoys hang over the railings. A few onlookers’ wave as we pass by. This place is alive in a way that you must experience in person.

IMGP3161Our captain takes us to a village that feels like the center of commerce. School lets out, and we are surrounded by children dressed in uniforms.

Teachers stand in the doorway and shout last-minute instructions. Small groups of kids scatter to the docks and make their way home. Monks chat with locals gathered around food stands.

Gold and Glitter of the Monastery

People watch as we walk through this place, but no one is paying attention to us. I focus my camera on life and not on the traditional photographic opportunities.

The gold and glitter of the monastery does not grab my eye. The ornate dress of entertainers on the street does not turn my lens. It is the garbage man, the watermen, and the ice maker that captures my attention. Children, piling into a canoe and paddling across the brown waters toward home becomes my focus. This is life on Tonle’ Sap.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life….it goes on.” -Robert Frost


The sun is setting, and our captain calls us back to the boat. We are now headed to the main lake. This vast endless body of water is breathtaking.

Clouds on the horizon start to darken. Lighting flashes in the far-off distance. Birds group together and fly inland toward shelter. Fishing boats line up one by one and head toward the villages. We float around for a time and take in our surroundings.

Sounds of the lake are a mix of bird calls and engines. The smell of earth and water is tainted by exhaust fumes. The sun disappears and we head back through the narrow waters between the village.

We are now guided by dim lights reflecting on the calm waters. Music comes from the open-air homes. People enjoy a meal on the porch as the coolness of the evening is a pleasant change from the heat of the day.

A boy peeks out a kitchen window as our boat glides by. This place is something different at night. A calm has set in. The noise of boats has been replaced by laughter and song. The bustle of commerce is gone.

Flashes of lightning ignite the clouds around us. It is an impressive glow of amber and blue. I leave my camera alone and just take in my surroundings.

From time to time I cringe when a photo opportunity passes by. That boy in the window would have been a good shot.


Finding a balance between the excitement of photographing a new place and experiencing that new place is important.

My day started out with capturing life on Tonle’ Sap and my night was about enjoying life on Tonle’ Sap. I have learned from the past that taking hundreds of photos does not fully capture a location.

The process is not complete if you do not experience a place without distraction. You forget the smell of exhaust. You forget how you felt seeing the warm glow of a light reflecting off the water. The wave from a family having dinner on their porch. This creates a reference when you are post-processing your work.

It helps you decide whether a photo should be black and white or color. You look at subjects you photograph differently because you recall those lost opportunities.

That boy in the window would have been a good shot. Tonle’ Sap in Cambodia is not a lakefront community with pontoon boats and BBQs.

It’s a life that requires grit, patience, and determination every day.

Gregory WilliamsGregory Williams is a retired US Navy Officer and member of the famed Explorers Club. His work has been on display at the Smithsonian Institution and several galleries. Traveling through five of the seven continents has provided Greg with stories to share. He captures the place and the people in detail and gives the reader a glimpse into each moment of his experience. Go Explore www.gregorywilliamsphotography.com

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