Today is the central day (full moon) of Bon Om Touk (បុណ្យអុំទូក]), the Cambodian Royal Water Festival, that marks a reversal of the flow of the Tonlé Sap river. The Tonlé Sap river is unique in that it reverses flow twice a year. The river runs between Tonlé Sap lake in central Cambodia and the Mekong river in Phnom Penh and its direction of flow is determined by the height of the water in the lake. At the end of the monsoon season the lake reaches its maximum height and the Mekong is at its minimum, so flow begins out of the lake into the Mekong. In May/June inflow begins.
The full moon this lunar month, the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, is considered especially fortuitous. At midnight tonight the faithful will worship in temples throughout Cambodia. They will also make offerings of, and eat, ak ambok, a special rice dish produced only for the festival. It is made by parching rice in the husk, pulverizing it flat, then mixing it with banana and coconut. Don’t try this at home !!!
I live in Phnom Penh and so get to witness Bon Om Touk first hand. All of the photos in this post are my own from this year (2017). Bon Om Touk is celebrated in various ways throughout Cambodia, but the biggest and most famous festival takes place in Phnom Penh. Websites say that millions flock here each year, from parts of Cambodia and abroad, but I think that “millions” may be stretching it a bit. Walking around by day and by night has been crowded in places, but relatively easy in comparison with many other festivals I have been to world wide where you can be hemmed in on all sides.
The festival in Phnom Penh has 3 major components:
- Boat racing on the Tonlé Sap river.
These races take place over three days, consisting of rowing teams from all over Cambodia representing villages, work organizations, and other associations. There are about 40 rowers per team, and the races take place continuously in daylight hours. They race in pairs which cross the finish line about once every minute or so. Spectators sit on the palace quay or stand on the banks. It’s not a mob scene, not least because few observers know precisely what’s going on, or who is racing at any particular time.
According to tradition the boat racing dates from the year 1177 when an enemy fleet moved upstream and across Tonlé Sap lake to sack the city of Angkor. Although they did sack it, the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII chased them down the river with his own navy and defeated them.
- Illuminated barges.
After dark, illuminated, highly decorated barges sail along the river in front of the palace quay. The barges represent various Cambodian agencies and associations.
Each night after dusk there are massive firework displays over the river (while the barges are sailing along). They last between 20 and 30 minute