In Khmer, it's name means "large, freshwater river". And it certainly lives up to the description: this is the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Southeast Asia, Tonlé Sap is what we are referring to, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a destination offering wonderful opportunities to practice the kind of socially and environmentally responsible tourism that directly benefits the local population.
There are around two hundred different species of fish to be found in the waters of Tonlé Sap. It is therefore no surprise to discover that the lake is one of the world's richest freshwater fishing grounds, providing a beneficial resource for over three million Cambodians in the region.
And as rich in life as the waters are, so too is the air here, as evidenced by the existence of Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary at the heart of Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve, with its flooded forests and wonderfully charming stilt villages. A fluttering, flapping ballet of colours, exotic calls and gorgeous song, this is a veritable waterbird paradise. Going on a birdwatching tour with an expert guide is a good way to see make some wonderful discoveries and familiarise yourself with the area's birdlife.
Thanks to Osmose, an organisation that has been working since 1999 to preserve the local ecology and provide economic development for the people living in the Prek Toal region of Cambodia, the bird colonies here are being protected, the locals are being educated about the environment – especially the younger generation – and the profits from the ecotourism opportunities created are being used to support local development.
When Osmose take you out on Tonlé Sap's lake, you learn about the complicated natural processes governing the life of the flooded forests and they draw your attention to the various environmental problems the area is faced with, such as the illegal and damaging practice of electric fishing, poaching, and the chopping down of trees in order to use the wood for heating purposes, etc.
Through ecotourism, Osmose has been able to make the the local people understand the importance of preserving the environment, and some ex-poachers are now working as boatmen, with yet others employed to teach visitors about fish farming and traditional fishing techniques etc. The positive socio-economic impact of providing local homestay accommodation, food and restaurant services and various kinds of boat tours and excursions directly benefits disadvantaged families and helps to support economic development in the area.
An immersive experience for the visitor, environmental preservation for the area visited, improved living conditions for the local people: these are all concrete examples of the benefits brought by the ecotourism operated in the Tonlé Sap region of Cambodia.