Bon Om Touk: What to know about the Water Festival of Cambodia

The Water Festival Bon Om Touk in Cambodia features thrilling boat races on the Tonle Sap river, as well as spectacular fireworks and cultural entertainment, drawing visitors from around the world.

What is Cambodia’s Water Festival – Bon Om Touk

As the year draws to a close, countless Cambodians eagerly participate in the bustling festivities that envelop the streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. This grand event, known as Bon Om Touk or the Water Festival, stands as one of the most significant annual festivals in Cambodia and offers a spectacle of unparalleled magnificence.

A celebration of Khmer history: Origin of boat racing tradition

Bon Om Touk carries a profound historical legacy dating back centuries to the time of the Khmer Empire. The festival’s ancient roots can be traced through inscriptions on temple walls, such as those at Bayon Temple and Banteay Chhmar, and its origins are intertwined with the 12th-century rule of King Preah Bat Jayavarman VII.

During this period of the Khmer Empire, which was located in Siem Reap in southern Cambodia, the empire boasted a formidable naval force. This navy achieved numerous victories in battles against the Cham people of present-day Vietnam and the Siam people of modern-day Thailand.

Legend has it that the king orchestrated a water festival in Cambodia, not only to determine the navy’s top performer through boat races but also to prepare his elite naval troops for potential conflicts. Subsequently, in the 16th century, when the capital shifted from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the boat races were relocated to the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, where they continue to be an enduring tradition to this day.

A rare natural phenomenon: River flowing backwards

Over time, the water festival’s primary focus shifted from its military origins to a more joyous celebration. It became an occasion for people to express gratitude to their deities for the blessings brought by the water, benefiting both fishermen and farmers. As the rainy season concludes, it bestows a plentiful harvest of fish and fertile soil upon the region along the river, which has been the lifeblood of Cambodia’s inhabitants for centuries.

For six months each year, the Tonle Sap River flows from Tonle Sap Lake, merging with the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. With the onset of the rainy season in May, the Mekong River rapidly swells into a fast-flowing torrent. The sheer volume and force of the water compel the Tonle Sap tributary to reverse its course, flowing upstream into the Tonle Sap Great Lake.

This results in a significant expansion of the lake, covering an immense 15,000 square kilometers, even surpassing the size of the US state of Connecticut. Thus, the water festival commemorates one of the world’s most remarkable natural phenomena: the reversal of the Tonle Sap River’s flow at the conclusion of the monsoon season.

 

The Water Festival Bon Om Touk in Cambodia features thrilling boat races on the Tonle Sap river, as well as spectacular fireworks and cultural entertainment, drawing visitors from around the world.

When is Cambodia’s Water Festival – Bon Om Touk

Bon Om Touk is a huge festival and national holiday lasting three days, with celebrations happening all over the country. The dates of the festival vary with the moon cycle, but it is always held at the end of October or beginning of November.

The main celebrations are in the capital of Phnom Penh, and the former Angkorian capital of Siem Reap. All across the country schools are closed, workers have a holiday, and Cambodians seize the opportunity to bond with their families. Besides that, people flock to celebrate the festival, with over a million people flooding Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to watch the famous traditional boat races.

On the second night of the festival, the full moon takes center stage. It’s a time for prayer and celebration as locals lay offerings in front of their homes, believing that the moon’s blessings will bring them good luck.

Things To Do At Cambodia’s Water Festival – Bon Om Touk

1.Watching boat races from the banks of Tonle Sap river

Arguably, the highlight of the Bon Om Touk festival revolves around the boat races. Participants hailing from various corners of Cambodia proudly represent their local communities, families, or settlements by engaging in races using slender, oar-powered boats. These boats come in varying sizes, with some accommodating substantial teams of twenty to thirty rowers, and in some cases, as many as eighty individuals.

Each boat is meticulously adorned with vibrant decorations, featuring unique colors and styles representing their respective villages. Notably, some boats are adorned with painted eyes on the front to symbolically ward off malevolent spirits.

The commitment to this event is remarkable, as boatmen arrive several days in advance to engage in rigorous practice sessions. It is not uncommon, in the days leading up to the festival, to observe groups of young men standing in the river, with water up to their waists, diligently honing their rowing skills under the watchful guidance of their leader. The festival draws immense crowds along the riverbanks, where enthusiastic spectators gather to witness this captivating spectacle, fervently cheering on their favorite teams.

2.Bid farewell to the full moon in Sampeah Preah Khae 

The Moon Salutation festival takes place during the full moon of Kadeuk, also known as the Harvest Moon. In Cambodia, many holidays align with lunar phases due to the lunisolar Buddhist calendar, and this festival not only honors the moon but also water. The full moon, occurring on the festival’s second night, is marked by a celebration called Sampeah Preah Khae or the Moon Salutation.

Local residents express their reverence by placing offerings such as incense, food, and beverages outside their homes. This gesture symbolizes their belief that these offerings will attract good fortune and a prosperous harvest for themselves and their families during the full moon.

3.Taste the traditional dish of Cambodia Ak Ambok

Following the Moon Salutation, a customary practice involves the consumption of a distinctive delicacy called Ak Ambok. This particular dish entails the frying of rice within its husk, followed by crushing it. Subsequently, the husks are meticulously removed, and the rice is combined with a blend of coconut and banana. This ritual feast is savored promptly as the midnight hour chimes.

4.Contemplate the dazzling boats in Bandaet Pratip 

The event of Bandaet Pratip typically features boats carrying dancers as well as musicians performing traditional instruments and war drums. As the sun descends, experience the enchantment when a procession of exquisitely adorned illuminated floats, called Loy Pratin, gracefully drifts along the rivers. Subsequently, the evening sky transforms into a spectacle, as a dazzling 20-minute fireworks show unfolds, leaving spectators in sheer amazement.

5.Enjoy the fantastic energy of Bon Om Touk music festival

Immerse yourself in the captivating blend of tradition and modernity at the Bon Om Touk music festival, where live bands and more come together to create a sensational musical experience. This festival is a vibrant celebration of Cambodian culture, fusing the rich heritage of traditional music with the dynamic rhythms of the contemporary music scene.

Feel the fantastic energy as melodies from both worlds entwine, filling the air with the spirit of unity and creativity. Join us in a harmonious journey through time, where the past and present coalesce, and music transcends boundaries.

Water Festival set to return on November 2023

After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic and the cancellation during Cambodia’s hosting of the ASEAN summit in 2022, the 2023 Water Festival is set to make a triumphant return to the banks of the Tonle Sap River, located in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and to the Siem Reap River at the heart of Angkorian Kingdom Siem Reap. From November 26th–28th, the event schedule is as follows:

  • For Phnom Penh: The Water Festival boat races on Tonle Sap River: November 26th, 2023.
  • For Siem Reap
    • Bon Om Touk Live Music Festival: Free entry on November 25th from 5 pm to 8 pm.
    • The Water Festival boat races on Siem Reap River: November 25th and 26th, 2023.
    • Additional activities encompassing water markets, product fairs, and traditional arts performances: November 25th to 28th, 2023.

Join us this year as Travel Sense Asia presents the latest itineraries, offering you the perfect opportunity to not only explore the most trending destinations in Cambodia but also to immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of Bon Om Touk all across the country.

 

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