Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk in Khmer, marks the beginning of the fishing season. More than that, it’s a celebration of what the Mekong River means to the country. Throughout history, fishing and boat travel have been, and continue to be, at the very heart of Cambodian culture.
The festival coincides with a major natural phenomenon. For most of the year the Tonlé Sap fresh water river and lake system empties into the Mekong at Phnom Penh. But after several months of the rainy season starting in June, the Mekong is so high that the flow of water is reversed, causing the Tonlé Sap and its lake upstream to swell considerably.
November marks the end of the rainy season, and the point where the current returns to its natural direction.
Although the festival is celebrated all over the country, Phnom Penh is undoubtedly the focal point of celebrations.
Colourfully painted dragon boats from villages throughout the country travel to the capital to compete in three days of races. The boats and their colour-coordinated crews are undoubtedly the stars of the event. The largest are more than 100 feet long and are manned (women don’t appear to be allowed to paddle) with around 80 paddlers, each positioned in pairs along the length of the narrow boats.
The sight of multiple boats and their respective crews paddling in unison is an incredible spectacle, especially when set to the soundtrack of thousands of spectators cheering from the riverbanks.
The city is lit up at night not just because of the full moon, but also through fireworks displays and elaborately lit flotillas on the river.
The festival draws in the region of a million people, making it both passionate and intense. Roads in the vicinity of the built-up stretch along the river (the Royal Palace and concentration of bars and restaurants) are closed, allowing the free flow of people between the river and other events like concerts and dance competitions. With the streets so packed, it’s advisable to be on guard from pickpockets.
Unfortunately, the event’s significance and magnitude has been its undoing in recent years. It has been cancelled for reasons such as nationwide flooding and, this year sadly, the death of a royal family member.
Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…