By Emily Martin

Bon Om Touk – Cambodian Water Festival

Last week Siem Reap was heaving with visitors from both overseas and other towns and villages of Cambodia. Why? Because it was the first time in 4 years that celebrations have been held on the river for Bon Om Touk – the Cambodian Water Festival.

On November 22, 2010 353 people lost their lives during the festival when a bridge collapsed in a stamped in Phnom Penh, the capital city. Since that day Cambodia has not held the traditional dragon boat races fireworks and parades as a sign of respect and remembrance to those lost in the tragedy.

This year, however, an estimated 5 million people gathered in Phnom Penh and hundreds of thousands in Siem Reap to take part in the festivities. It’s been said that these celebrations are more extravagant and popular than the Khmer New Year celebrations.

The main event is boat racing on the river. Hundreds of teams build boats and race each other for the top spot. The boats are brightly decorated, only to be outshone by the crew’s bright uniforms and enthusiastic yelling of ‘muy, pi, bey’ (1,2,3) . Before they take to the water you can see offerings of fruit and incense on the boats – asking for blessings, good luck and speed.

Music rings out during the day, a lot of the songs written specifically for the event. Later in the evening as the racing finished there’s fireworks, traditional music and dancing, and lanterns on the river.
Here’s an example of one of the songs written for the festival:

So what is Bon Om Touk?
It’s an annual festival which takes place on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, usually falling in November. It celebrates the end of the wet season and the reversing flow of water between Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River.

For most of the year, the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season arrives in June, the Mekong rises, reversing the flow to dump water into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops once more, allowing the current to reverse again, emptying the excess waters of Tonle Sap back into the Mekong.

Bon Om Touk dates back to the 12th century, it was celebrated by King Jayavarman VII’s Navy to start the Cambodian fishing season. The celebrations as they are now started in the 1990’s.

There are actually three ceremonies which happen throughout the entire Bon Om Touk celebrations:

  • Loy Pratip, parade of illuminated boats on the river. Each boat is sponsored by a government ministry or state institution.
  • Sampeas Preah Khe, salutation to the moon. The full moon is supposed to be a good sign for the coming harvest so Cambodians give thanks to it and pray for a good harvest ahead.
  • Auk Ambok, named after the rice dish which forms part of the Bon Om Tuk ceremony. Rice is fried in the husk and then pounded with a giant pestle. The husks are removed and the special rice mixed with coconut and banana. This traditional Khmer dish is sold throughout the festival.

Where can you enjoy the festivities?
The biggest celebrations happen in the capital, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is a close second. Absorbing the atmosphere and wandering through the crowds is an experience within itself – if you want to escape the throngs then both cities have conveniently placed restaurants and bars with upstairs seating areas to watch the boat races and action from above.

For more information on the event, contact the Ministry of Tourism at +855 23 211593 or +855 23 213741, or visit their website, www.mot.gov.kh.


Find out more about one of Cambodia’s other most special holidays: Pchum Ben.