Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Phnom Penh Guide
The main festival of Phnom Penh and possibly Cambodia is the amazing Bon Om Touk (Water Festival). This festival is when Cambodia celebrates the end of the wet season and the change of direction by the mighty Tonlé Sap River. The city celebrates by hosting a three day manic festival of boat races, concert night time revelry.
Bon Om Touk Overview and Visitor Guide
At times it appears as if the whole of Cambodia has crammed along the banks of the Mekong to cheer on their town’s tail-boat as they race for supremacy. Hotels and transport are a nightmare to secure around the Water Festival but if you are lucky enough to reserve a place to bed you are in for a great time as the celebrations are some of the best found in Asia. The Bon Om Touk celebration marks the end of the wet season and the start of the dry season. At this time of the year the three rivers of Phnom Penh are at their highest which causes a remarkable event; the Tonlé Sap River reveres its flow and heads slowly upstream.
The colourful skyline of Phnom Penh
Origins of the Bon Om Touk Water Festival
The source of the Tonlé Sap River is the wide and shallow Tonlé Sap Lake that lies at the same elevation as Phnom Penh. The increased height of the Mekong River in the wet season replenishes the waters of the Tonlé Sap Lake. The Bon Om Touk festival also aligns with the date of the full moon in the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk so the date varies yearly but is around mid November. The main highlight of the festival is the long tail boat races with competitor’s paddling along a 3km stretch of the Mekong River and the length of Sisowath Quay. Each town enters a tail-boat and knock out races ensue over the three days until a final on the third day which is watched by the King of Cambodian.
Team sizes and boats vary radically between regions with the largest teams entering 60 paddlers per boat. The boat teams chant war and battle songs as they manically paddle down the river to the finish line. The tail-boats are pieces of art, designed to ward off evil spirits by their elaborately painted faces and patterns. Massive temporary stands are erected along the banks of the river for spectators to cheer (or jeer) from.
During the festival it is tradition to eat Ak Ambok a rice, coconut and banana dish which has its traditions in the Sampeah Preah Khe festival. These foods are favourites of rabbits which live in Cambodia and the foods recall the time when Buddha took the form of a rabbit called Pouthesat who would eat the basis of Ak Ambok. The story and roots of the traditions may elude many visitors but the dish is mighty popular with Phnom Penh’s residents!
Bon Om Touk Water Festival Traditions
During the festival it is tradition to eat Ak Ambok a rice, coconut and banana dish which has its traditions in the Sampeah Preah Khe festival. These foods are favourites of rabbits which live in Cambodia and the foods recall the time when Buddha took the form of a rabbit called Pouthesat who would eat the basis of Ak Ambok. The story and roots of the traditions may elude many visitors but the dish is mighty popular with Phnom Penh’s residents! Other highlights of the Bon Om Touk water festival include:
- Bandaet Pratip where government department compete in the tail-boat race in boats that are brightly illuminated.
- Sampeah Preah Khe - a Buddhist religious festival which is dedicated to the moon, this is the festival which decides the actual date of the entire water festival. The festival recalls the life of Pouthesat the holy rabbit who was a reincarnation of a Buddha. Pouthesat image can be seen in the moon and this is at its most visible during the full moon.