Bon Om Touk or the Water Festival is probably the biggest street party I’ll ever attend.
Our Filipino neighbours likened it to the People Power movement of 1986. A French friend said the area around Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument looked like the Champs-Elysée after the French won the World Cup. For us, it was a unique experience, one which showed Phnom Penh at its best.
Bon Om Touk sees literally millions of people flood into Phnom Penh from the provinces to watch boat crews from around the country compete on the Tonlé Sap River. Municipal authorities set up temporary accommodation in parks and on pathways for those visitors who cannot stay in the wats. For three days the riverside is lined with spectators, watching the tail-boats compete in heats, the final of which is watched by the Cambodian king.
The boat races coincide with a time when the river changes direction, from flowing into the Tonlé Sap Lake to emptying into the Mekong River. Two stories date the festival back to the 12th century, when it may have either marked the start of the fishing season, or served as a re-enactment of the Khmer naval victories depicted in the bas-relièf carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat and the Bayon.
This time also marks the Buddhist festival of Loy Pratip (Loy Katong in Laos). But in place of the humble banana-leaf boats illuminated with candles that I’ve seen placed in the river in Vientiane, Phnom Penh celebrates with the launch of massive floats, sponsored by various ministries and other institutions and illuminated with electric lights, which cruise up and down the river between about 7 and 12 at night–just as the fireworks finish.
Meanwhile, the full moon that coincides with Bon Om Touk has its own festival, Sampeas Preah Khe, to wish for a good harvest, while the feast of Auk Ambok celebrates the eating of a special flattened rice dish at midnight in the temples (not sure what that signifies).
Roo’s mother Judie and sister Barbara were still with us for the opening of Bon Oum Touk, which was wonderful, as Phnom Penh was spruced and sparkling–literally–for the occasion. Over the remaining days, we mingled with the crowds, watched the nightly fireworks shows, and generally soaked up the amazing atmosphere.
On the final night, we were invited to join the director of Tash’s school, Mrs You Muoy, and some of the teachers at a table on the rooftop terrace of the Pon Lok restaurant on the banks of the Tonlé Sap river. There we had a spectacular view of the final races, the fireworks, the rising of the full moon, and the cruising of the ministerial floats, celebrated in wonderful company.
If ever a post needed to be depicted in photos, rather than words, this would be it. Unfortunately, broadband here is slow and unreliable (top of my list of ‘Things I will not miss about Cambodia’), turning the task of uploading photos and linking them to the blog into a half-day activity. But you’ll find more of Andrew’s wonderful photos here if interested.
I highly recommend planning to visit Phnom Penh during Bon Oum Touk. There’s nothing like it.