Bon Om Touk or the Cambodian Water Festival

As I mentioned previously, last week I found myself in the middle of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the annual water festival. This festival coincides with the full moon, but is most importantly related to the fact that the Tonle Sap River reverses its flow at this time.

The concept is the root of the water festival, from what I can gather, despite several historical reasons. For about half the year the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong, the other half the Mekong empties into the Tonle Sap. This is because of the Monsoon weather. During the rainy season the Mekong is at its peak and higher than the Tonle Sap, thus the water flows up the tributary. But during the dry season, the Mekong’s level drops below that of the Tonle Sap and the tributary runs into the Mekong.

It’s enough to drive a country to drink.

Which they do, though not nearly so much as neighboring countries. An observation I made last week. But they do celebrate, for three days. Hundreds of thousands of contestants come into Phnom Penh, the capital, to compete in the annual boat races on the Tonle Sap in front of the royal palace.

Each boat is a long boat carved with dragons and eyes and all such to match with superstition, history, and myth. Thirty or more paddlers pile into each boat and speed for about a kilometer against other boats. The contest is for fun and glory, there are no “actual” winners, and while most of the three days of the celebration are consumed with one-on-one races, there is a mass race at the last evening.

While I only attended the boat racing, there are two other important elements of the water festival. Those include the royal boat parade, with boats decorated by different ministries and lit up with lights and flames, that promenade along the riverfront. And then there is the Buddhist sacrifice in honor of the full moon. These I eschewed, not for lack of interest, but because I didn’t know about them at the time. I was only in Cambodia to take care of some financial business, after all.

Unfortunately, that’s about all I know. There seem to be very few sources online relating to the water festival and they all repeat the same information. While there may be more info in books, I don’t have access to them at the moment, and can’t go into greater detail concerning the rituals or history. I will point you to the Wikipedia article, which contains some uncited Hindu myths that have, allegedly, been converted into Khmer culture. You can see that here. I’ll do that rather than repeat all of the information again, ad nauseum, like all the travel sites online.

I only really attended one day of the boat races, and took a lot of pictures, which I’ll include below. Otherwise, I was concerned with trying to minimize my spending and survive for three extra days without the clothes or funds I’d originally planned to have. Anyway, here’re some photos:

Boats on the Tonle Sap.
The royal pavilion overlooking the finish line.
Security personnel everywhere. These ones on parade.
Boats returning to the starting line.
Vendors on the promenade.

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