Water Festival in Cambodia | Cruise Mekong River

Water Festival in Cambodia

Water Festival in Cambodia

One of the biggest and most extravagant festivals in Cambodia, the water festival (or Bonn Om Touk) is a spectacle not to be missed. Over three days during the full moon in November, up to a million people from all over the country and beyond flock to the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong river in Phnom Penh.

They come to watch as hundreds of brightly-coloured boats, some up to 20 metres in length and each with over 50 crazy paddlers, do battle in highly competitive races. Each intricately decorated boat is a representative from one of Cambodia’s 21 provinces and they race for top honours in a tradition that dates back to the powerful navy of King Jayavarman II, the 9th-century founder of the great Angkorian Empire. Travel to Cambodia

The Water Festival also marks the start of the fishing season and the reversal of the current in the Tonle Sap river. This in itself is a spectacle to behold. At the height of the rainy season, the Mekong river flows with such an incredible power that water is forced back up into the adjoining Tonle Sap river, causing it to reverse its current and begin flowing northward into the Tonle Sap Lake. When the water levels begin to subside, the current reverses to its normal direction once again.

This is when the festival takes place and also when vast quantities of fish are ushered back into the Mekong as the water empties from the lake. For the tourists that come to witness the spectacle this is an exhilarating experience, while for local people it is also traditionally a time of thanksgiving to the river for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish.

Water Festival in Cambodia

Water Festival in Cambodia

There are plenty of festivities throughout the three-day celebration to keep visitors entertained. At night the sky is lit with fireworks and the boats are illuminated as they cruise the water in a beautiful display. Visitors can sample traditional food, music and dance, while crafts, games and activities keep the entire family busy.

The dates of the festival are not easy to predict as they rely on the vagaries of the moon. It would be wise to contact the tourist authority if you want to ensure that you don’t miss this stunning event.
When is Water Festival in Cambodia?

This year, the official days of Water Festival are Nov 5, 6, and 7. On the days of the Festival, thousands of people from all over Cambodia come to the riverside in Phnom Penh to either compete in dragon boat racing or watch the race. I have never been able to witness the race first hand but it looks like this.

Boat racing during water festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Sometimes there are boats only with women rowers and they sometimes compete against men as well.

After the race during the day, in the evening, the boats will be decorated with lights and that is certainly worth going to see as well.

Unlike Khmer Neaw Year Celebrations in April, where Phnom Penh gets practically empty because every Phnom Penh resident goes to their home town in the provinces, during Water Festival, Phnom Penh becomes packed with people coming from outside the capital.

This year’s festival will be a particularly special one for many Cambodians, as the Festival was cancelled for the past three years. In 2011 and 2013, it was cancelled because the country suffered severely from flooding during the rainy season and the Government encouraged communities to use the money they had budgeted for Water Festival for flood victims and communities’ rehabilitation. In 2012, it was cancelled in honor of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October 2012.

So, when is Water Festival in Battambang?

In Battambang, where Soksabike is based, Water Festival is celebrated in October and this year it will be on October 7 and 8! The reason we celebrate it before everyone else does in the country is on these days in October, Battambang will have a boat racing in Sangkat River and select the teams that will get to compete in the race in Phnom Penh. It is reported that some teams from Thailand will join this year’s race in Battambang.

In the past, teams from Pursat or Laos have also joined the race in Batambang, before being selected to compete in Phnom Penh. Similar to Battambang, Siem Reap Province also generally has a selection race before the big race in Phnom Penh. Teams from other provinces generally do not have a selection race.

In the coming days leading up to the race in Battambang, the teams are expected to be practicing on Sangkat River. So, even if you may not be in Battambang on Oct 7 and 8, you may be able to get to see the boats and racers on the river.

What can you expect on the days of the event?

On the days of events, the races are said to be held around noon or 1pm. The race will start by the bridge in front of Classy Hotel and ends at the bridge North of Psar Nath. Provincial officials and VIPs will sit at a stage on the west bank of the river, close to the bridge where the race ends.

During the race, there will be a woman standing at the very end of the boat dancing and singing, so that the team will have a common rhythm and it is easier for the team to row together and go fast.

There will probably be a big crowd by the river on the days of the events. There will be a lot of stalls selling food, drinks, clothes, etc and Battambang residents go watch the race as well as to just enjoy the festive scene.

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