The annual three-day Water Festival competes with the Khmer New Year for being the most important holiday for Cambodians.
A smaller Water Festival is held around Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, but for the real thing you’ll have to go to Phnom Penh, where main celebrations are along the Tonle Sap River in front of the Royal Palace.
Crowds flock to the capital to take in boat races on the river, fireworks, street food and a flotilla of illuminated river vessels during the three-day Bon Om Touk, or Water Festival.
But the boat races – which are best viewed from the banks of the Tonle Sap river, along Sisowath Quay or the opposite section on Chhroy Changvar peninsular – are the spectators’ highlight.
Tens of thousands of Cambodians travel from their home provinces to either participate in the contests or cheer on their favourite team.
Water Festival is held each year during the Buddhist lunar month of Kadeuk (in November), and falls on the full moon. It marks the end of the rainy season and start of the fishing season.
Dozens of teams rowing brightly-painted dragon boats, which can measure more than 30 metres in length and hold 80 oarsmen, compete in a series of heats in a bid to bring honour to their province.
Tourists are invited by authorities to view the races at a specially constructed tent in front of the Royal Palace (hint: bring a copy of your passport), but you can always jostle with the throngs anywhere along the Riverside strip. Be sure to wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat and bring cash to feast on tasty festival treats – like ambok, rice fried in its husks and mixed with coconut and sugar or banana – and cool off with beverage, especially plenty of water. Take extra special care of your belongings when in crowds.
The Water Festival dates back to the 12th century during the reign of Angkorian King Jayavarman VII, his naval forces celebrating their fleet’s superiority. Three Buddhist ceremonies are now included in its traditions. Loy Pratip is a post-sunset water parade of huge illuminated boats (sponsored by the various government ministries and other institutions) that light up the waterways with colourful electric lights. Sampeas Preah Khe pays homage to the moon, with the full moon believed to be a good omen for the coming harvest. After the Sampeah Preah Khae ceremony, Cambodian Buddhists gather at a pagoda for Ak Ambok, and eat ambok, traditionally after midnight.
Smaller Water Festival celebrations take place in Siem Reap and across the country, but the largest festivities are in Phnom Penh. Fireworks light up the sky over the Tonle Sap each night from 7pm, and floating, candle-lit lanterns holding flowers and incense sticks are cast off from the banks. If you’d like to launch your own floating lantern, they can be purchased for about $3 from riverside vendors.
Visiting during Water Festival will make you thankful for the chance to experience a uniquely Cambodian festival and take in Phnom Penh’s colourful boat races, illuminated night skies and bustling city ambience.
Backgrounds of Bon Om Toeuk
As one of the country’s most popular yearly celebrations, Water Festival also marks the seasonal reversing of the Tonle Sap river’s current. It is a unique natural phenomenon as it’s the only waterway in the world which flows in opposite directions at different times of the year.
The Tonle Sap lake or Great Lake is a vast expanse of water, once an arm of the sea, which forms the most significant topographical feature in country.
From November to May, the Tonle Sap river runs into the Mekong just like any other tributary. But with the arrival of the monsoon rains, there is such build-up of water in the main stream that excess pours into the Tonle Sap river, forcing it to change direction and flow back into the Tonle Sap lake.
The Water Festival is seen as a way of giving thanks to the waterways for providing fertile land and plentiful fish.
Full Moon brings good luck
The Festival also coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. The Cambodians believe that the full moon is a good omen which promises a bountiful harvest.
On this night, especially in the countryside, people gather to give thanks to the moon. Special food is prepared for this occasion – fruits, vegetables and fish amok, a uniquely Cambodian speciality. Candles are lit, incense burnt and offerings made. The chief priest lights the candles and as it drips on the banana leaves spread beneath the candles, predictions are made. It is said that the shape of the melted wax on the banana leaves dictates the state of all future harvest for the year.
Water Festival Video
Here’s a time-lapse video of the Water Festival in Phnom Penh in 2015, made by Darren Wilch of Cambodia Images.