The annual Bon Om Touk ( Cambodian Water Festival )is a must-see event and should be on every Cambodian bucket list. Boat crews from all over the country descend on Phnom Penh to compete in boat races on the Tonlé Sap River, actually, the rallying point is just below the Chrouy Changva bridge and the boats finish racing where the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers meet. More importantly, it is a time when many Cambodians gravitate to the capital, as the festival is one of the most popular celebrations on the Cambodian calendar.
The water festival brings together people from across Cambodia and abroad for three unforgettable days of boat racing, fireworks and festivities. It heralds the end of the rainy season, the beginning of the harvest moon, and the Water Festival Cambodia. The event is celebrated on the full moon in October or November, so check your lunar calendar. It has been celebrated for hundreds of years, and it’s an exciting time to be in Phnom Penh to watch Bon Om Touk on the Tonlé Sap River.
Water Festival Cambodia
Bon Om Touk (Pirogue Racing Festival)
Every town and village celebrate Bon Om Touk. It coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk, also known as the harvest moon, which is considered a time of good omen and promising a great rice crop.
However, the most popular place to celebrate this event is Sisowath Quay, or Riverside, where many people gather for three days and nights to watch the boat races on the Tonlé Sap River and enjoy the celebrations. The Water Festival Cambodia climaxes in a huge fireworks display on the final day. One of the best vantage points is Phnom Penh Port. This is a staging area for boats. You can chat with crews and watch well-wishers toss food, beer and cigarettes down to the crews; yes, these crews are a hardy bunch.
But why have the Water Festival in Cambodia now? During this time – October to November, the unique forces of nature make the flow of the Tonlé Sap River reverse direction. Cambodia’s rainy season is intense, and the river becomes so swollen with water that it reverses direction towards the Mekong. The festival marks the return of flow, and the end of the rainy season. The festival is a time to give thanks to the rivers, as they have provided fertile land and fish.
However, the occasion is essentially a harvest festival that celebrates success, the future, reflection and thanks. A very Cambodian way of life.
During the Cambodian Water Festival, the river is illuminated by fireworks and dozens of brightly-lit boats under a full moon. A traditional delicacy, which is popular during this time, is Ork Ambok. This is a rice dish where rice is fried in the husk then crushed and mixed with banana and coconut. It is amazingly delicious, and you will be back for more. So, join the crowd.
In fact, the Tonlé Sap Riverside is so crowded that the authorities have to close off large sections of the area. Don’t be surprised if you walk into the area and there are barriers and checkpoints. The Cambodia Water Festival is time of huge crowds of festival goers and one of safety.
Water Festival Cambodia | Boat Racing
The main attraction to the Cambodia Water Festival is the Bon Om Touk and the magnificent boats with their amazing crews racing down the Tonle Sap river. Originally, the boat races were a chance for the Khmer people to prepare for battle. From this, the King would select the best to defend the Kingdom. These trials also honoured the naval victories of the Khmers over the Chams under the leadership of Jayavarman VII in the twelfth century – a major turning point in Khmer history.
Today, the stakes remain high. Every boat crew takes enormous pride in preparing for the Water Festival, painstakingly decorating their boats with carvings and paintings. Crews train for months before making the journey to the capital to compete. The number of boats competing in the race is in the hundreds.
Bon Om Touk Boats
The construction and design of the boats for the Bon Om Touk is similar to their Angkorian ancestors’ design as seen on ancient Angkor temples. These boats come from all over Cambodia to take part in the most prestigious race of the year. In fact, if you travel to the provinces, you will often see a boat shed housing the local community’s contender for the next Bon Om Touk (boat race).
These colourful boats sit low on the water and have crews anywhere up to eighty people. There is also a captain who beats a drum, encouraging the crew to move swiftly through the water. Many of the boats have figureheads, typically a woman in traditional dress who dances to the rhythm of the captain’s drum.
Boats are often sponsored by government bodies, institutions and companies; it is always good to back a winner. The winners of the Bon Om Touk are given drinks, money, clothes, rice and cigarettes. The boat race winners will be feted in their villages as heroes.
Loy Pratip | Moon Party | Ork Ambok
Besides the boat race, the festival also has three other ceremonies: Sampeas Preah Khe (Moon salutation), Loy Pratip (the illuminated float), and the eating of Ork Ambok. Sampeah Preah Khae is a ceremony in which salutations are made to the moon. After the Sampeah Preah Khae, people gather at a pagoda at midnight for Ak Ambok. Another ceremony, Bandaet Pratip, begins around 7 pm with boats festooned with lights taking to the water.
During the day, people watch the races from either side of the Tonle Sap, and at night time the river lights up with boats bedecked with lights. People party either on Riverside or at nearby drinkeries. There are also fireworks during the night. This is an awesome way to spend a few days and meet the real Cambodia. The Bon om Touk on the Tonle Sap is not there for tourists; it is real Khmer culture as much as the Angkorian Temples in Siem Reap.
Cambodia Water Festival Culture
Cambodia is a water culture, and the relationship between the Mekong, Tonle Sap and the Khmer people goes back thousands of years. These waters have also seen some of Southeast Asia’s great empires. Even today, the country needs these same water resources for its future. Water needs and deserves respect.
Cambodia Travel Visa
Getting to Cambodia and obtaining a Cambodian travel visa are very easy, no matter your entry point. However, finding a hotel during the Water Festival Cambodia – can be difficult. Book as early as possible. You can support us by booking your accommodation through any of the global advertisers on our website.
Water Festival Cambodia | Additional information
If you need more information about the Cambodian Water Festival on the Tonle Sap or Bon Om Touk, drop Warwick an email and he will help you.