Tonle Sap’s Villagers in Cambodia
Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country with a rich historical past that attracts many tourists, had almost 18% of its population living below the national poverty line in 2019, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Among the various tourist attractions in Cambodia, the floating villages on Lake Tonle Sap are probably the most unique – villagers from there are mainly ethnic Vietnamese who are both poor and stateless. While Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s biggest inland fisheries, the villagers’ incomes are insecure. However, without Cambodian citizenship, it is difficult for those villagers to go elsewhere to look for other jobs. In many ways, most villagers would not choose to live on the water if they had another choice. Knowing the circumstances of the villagers, some volunteers have reached out. This article will look at three organizations that have taken steps to help Lake Tonle Sap’s villagers in Cambodia.

Conservation International (CI)

With offices set up throughout Asia-Pacific, CI works with local and national governments, the private sector and indigenous communities to achieve one of its main aims – to improve food security for needy communities. Therefore, in Cambodia’s case, the organization set its eyes on Lake Tonle Sap’s villagers, and more specifically, on female villagers.

In the villages, fishing is the main occupation for both men and women. However, women are also responsible for smoking fish or turning the fish into Cambodia’s popular condiment, prahok. Yet, they do not receive sufficient income for such labor-intensive jobs.

To improve the livelihood of women and their efficiency in processing fish, CI offers training sessions on marketing skills and packaging techniques. Moreover, the organization also provides fuel-efficient stoves for the villagers, lessening their time smoking fish. With CI’s help, women’s incomes have increased notably, changing the conventional perceptions of women’s contributions to their communities within the villages.


Osmose has the objective of improving the livelihood of Lake Tonle Sap’s residents through the conservation of the area. For instance, the organization has developed ecotourism in one of the floating villages, Prek Toal. Riding on boats, tourists can visit a bird sanctuary in flooded forests guided by bird guides and fish and crocodile rising farms. There are also on-site accommodations for tourists who want to stay overnight. Since Prek Toal’s villagers are in charge of the different services and activities, this generates direct income for the locals. Therefore, with the help of Osmose, the villagers can have a more secure livelihood.

In addition, profits generated from ecotourism can help the locals in another way – to enhance the development of Prek Toal. For example, Osmose can build more essential facilities in the village, such as water filters and schools.

Global Nature Fund (GNF)

Like Osmose, GNF understands the importance of ecotourism for Lake Tonle Sap’s villagers. Unlike Osmose, GNF focuses on the water supply and hygiene of the area. According to GNF’s website, villagers do not have safe water to drink. Consequently, they need to drink polluted lake water or purchase drinking water from the mainland.

To ensure local inhabitants have a clean water supply, the organization builds a floating water kiosk with an ultrafiltration system. Meanwhile, GNF also forms a local water committee to manage the water infrastructure.

With the new water infrastructure, not only can local villagers have better health, but they also can have an alternative job and income other than fishing. According to GNF, seven people are now working at the water kiosk.

Overall, the floating villages on Lake Tonle Sap are unique places in Cambodia. For many villagers, living on the water is not easy, and many are financially insecure. Fortunately, organizations such as CI, Osmose and GNF have taken the lead in helping the local inhabitants. Gradually, the lives of Tonle Sap’s villagers in Cambodia have improved.

– Mimosa Ngai

Photo: Flickr