Cambodia’s famous Water Festival is one of the highlights of the calendar year, bringing together people from across the country for three unforgettable days of boat racing, fireworks and festivities. Heralding the end of the rainy season and the coming of the Harvest moon, the Water & Moon Festival, or Bon Om Touk, has been celebrated along the banks of Phnom Penh’s famed Sisowath Quay for hundreds of years.
This year, the Water Festival falls on November 2nd to 4th to coincide with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. Also known as the Harvest Moon, the moon has long been seen as a good omen promising a bountiful rice crop. This auspicious day is celebrated in villages all across Cambodia, but none more jubilantly than in the capital, where the carnival-like atmosphere of the Water Festival is illuminated by the light of the full moon.
The timing of Bon Om Touk also marks the changing direction of the Tonle Sap River, a unique natural phenomenon not experienced anywhere else in the world. During the rainy season, the heavy monsoons force the waters of the Mekong to flow back upstream along the Tonle Sap River to the Tonle Sap Lake. As the rains slow and the water level recedes, the river’s direction once again flows towards the sea, leaving behind rich silt to nourish the lands and plenty of fish to nourish the people.
The History of the Water-People
A true water culture, Cambodia’s ancient relationship between the Mekong, the people and the land dates back thousands of years. The famed navies of the Angkorian Kings fought and won many a battle on the waters of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, and these mighty rivers have given life to some of the greatest Empires in Asia. The water festival is a celebration of the rebirth of the country through the monsoon rains, and the colorful boat races a vestige of the former military might of Angkor.
Dating back to Angkorian times, today’s Water Festival is a throwback to times past. Originating as a Khmer thanksgiving ceremony to celebrate the end of the monsoon, kick off the Cambodian fishing season and appease the river divinities, the Water Festival was also seen as a showcase of military prowess, with the 12th century victories of King Jayavarman VII immortalized in the colorful boat racing traditions and adorned upon the walls of the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar Temples.
The Boat Racing
Still the biggest draw to the Water Festival, the colorful boat races are remarkably similar to the 800-year-old engravings on the Angkor temples. Made in the same style, the brightly-colored boats sit low on the water and are manned by anywhere from thirty to eighty people, with a captain who dances to the rhythm of the drums on the bow as encouragement to the rowers as they move swiftly through the water.
Historically, the boat races were a chance for the Angkorian people to train and prepare for battle, with the King selecting the champions to help defend the Kingdom. Today the stakes are just as high, with the honor of every man’s village to fight for. Every villager takes pride in preparing for the Water Festival, painstakingly hand carving out the boat and training for months before pulling together all their savings and making the long trek to the capital to demonstrate their strength and stamina in front of the King.
The Three Ceremonies
As well as the boat racing, there are three other traditional pillars of the Water Festival to celebrate and give thanks to both the land and water.
Loy Pratip: an illuminated fluvial parade. Historically a candle-lit naval procession, these days this is a spectacle in its own right, where beautifully bedecked boats drift up and down the waterways
Sampeas Preah Khe: the full moon ceremony. A good sign of the coming harvest, November’s full moon is celebrated with salutations and offerings throughout the country, with locals praying for a bountiful yield
Auk Ambok: a traditional delicacy made of flattened rice, bananas, and coconut, traditionally eaten after midnight, when revelers gather at the temples to celebrate the harvest moon
A Carnival in the Capital
This year’s festival in Phnom Penh is due to attract well over a million spectators from across the country, the region and the world, with the brightly painted boats, megaphones. and luminous T-shirts adding a distinctly modern feel to the historic festivities. The streets are lined with pop-up food stalls, funfairs, and open-air live concerts, and the city is decorated with colorful bunting and banners.
As night falls, the city comes to life. The Royal Palace is illuminated with a series of gold lights and brilliant fireworks light up the dark sky as the flotillas glide down the river. With holiday discounts, delicious food, and a jovial crowd, it’s easy to see why the Water Festival is the most popular Cambodian holiday after Khmer New Year.
For these three days, the capital is transformed. With the huge crowds on the riverbank cheering for all the teams as they sprint downstream, there is a huge sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie and for Cambodians, who love any excuse to celebrate, the Water Festival is the perfect time to let their hair down and enjoy spending quality time with family and friends, old and new.