Bon Om Touk: Cambodia’s Water Festival
Widely-celebrated in Cambodia, the water festival, or Bon Om Touk, takes place in November and lasts for three days. It’s an important month, marking the end of the monsoons and the beginning of the dry, cool season.
More than two million people from all over the country descend on the capital Phnom Penh for Bon Om Touk, which coincides with the reversal of the Tonlé Sap River’s current. During the monsoon season from June to October, the Tonlé Sap Lake reaches its maximum capacity as water flows into the lake.
However, in November as the rains end, the current reverses and water begins to flow back. Downstream from the river and into the Mekong River, since water levels in the Mekong are much lower at this time.
It is the only river in the world where this unique phenomenon takes place. The Khmer people gather at the convergence of these two rivers in Phnom Penh to celebrate this natural occurrence. They thank Mother Nature for replenishing the Mekong with abundant water.
Festivities during the event include longboat races, music, dancing, and fireworks. Travelers can enjoy eating and drinking the whole day from various street vendors. The highly competitive boat races, held in the capital, feature colorfully decorated longboats. Each vessel is rowed by thirty to forty participants, which makes for a spectacular sight. Some boats are rowed by monks from temples around the country.
The longboat races are thought to be in celebration of Angkor’s illustrious victory with King Jayavarman VII. In 1177, a Vietnamese fleet of Cham warships sailed up the Tonlé Sap River and across the lake. These Cham warriors were then defeated by Angkor’s longboats. Bas-reliefs at Bayon temple in Angkor commemorate the great victory.
Bon Om Touk celebrations continue into the evening. Visitors can enjoy the parades of illuminated boats and fireworks from Phnom Penh’s riverside promenade. One of the best ways to enjoy the festivities is to find a riverside restaurant, with an open rooftop terrace, and get a bird’s-eye view of all the river activities.
Travelers sometimes get the Bon Om Touk festival confused with Khmer New Year because of the spirited nature of both events. As Cambodians celebrate by throwing water in the New Year, they are quite different occasions.
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