Bon Om Touk, also known as “the Water Festival,” is an annual Cambodian celebration that takes place primarily in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh but also in the city of Angkor.
Bon Om Touk is a celebration of the end of the rainy season on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk. The full moon is considered to bring good luck that can lead to an abundant harvest. On the Western calendar, Bon Om Touk falls either in October or early in November.
The heavy monsoon rains cause the Mekong River to reverse course and backflow into the very large Tonle Sap Lake far upstream. This causes the lake to overflow its normal bounds, which provides plenty of water for Bon Om Touk’s main event, the annual Pirogue longboat race. Once the Mekong and the Tonle Sap River, which connects the Mekong to Tonle Sap Lake, again start flowing toward the sea, you know it is almost time for Bon Om Touk. The receding of the waters also leaves rich sediments that aid local farmers in the year ahead. However, be aware that, in low-water years, the annual boat race may be cancelled.
For three straight days, the celebrations continue, with people from all over Cambodia thronging into Phnom Penh to take part in the festivities. During both daylight and darkness, the “party” goes on. Activities include music concerts, traditional dancing, and feasting on native foods. The regatta often includes as many as 400 racing boats, each decked out in bright colours and rowed by around 40 men, who are typically monks. There are prizes for the winners, and on-board dancers and drummers keep the rowers in good rhythm.
This boat racing tradition goes back to the year 1177 A.D., when an enemy fleet moved upstream and across Tonle Sap Lake to sack the city of Angkor. Although they did sack it, the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII chased them down with his own navy and defeated them afterwards. You can see depictions of the battle at Angkor to this day. Also, the tradition stems from the annual training exercises of the Cambodian navy on Tonle Sap Lake.
Besides the Pirogue boat race, three other elements of the celebrations to enjoy are:
- Try the special rice treat of Bon Om Touk, Ak Ambok. The dish is made by first frying the rice in its natural husks, then beating it in a pestle till soft, and finally, mixing in banana and coconut meat for flavor. Ak Ambok is for sale everywhere you turn during the Bon Om Touk festival, so you will have not trouble locating it.
- Besides the boat race, there is another boat-related attraction at Bon Om Touk. When evening falls, the waters come alive with numerous illuminated boats, each one representing some branch of the Cambodian government. The lights are often neon, and they are always colorful and patterned.
- Stay late into the night, and you can see some impressive fireworks displays. There will be multiple colours, large, loud explosions, various shapes appearing in the sky, and crowds cheering and clapping as the show goes on.