Water Festival in Cambodia

Water Festival in Cambodia

Water Festival in Cambodia

What is the Cambodian Water Festival? The water festival is considered as a significant celebration in Cambodia. It’s called Bon Om Touk in the Cambodian language. It’s a three-day celebration of boat racing on Kadeuk’s full moon. The Harvest Moon is cogitated this special moon. Since the Buddhist calendar is lunisolar, most Cambodian holidays coincide with moon cycles.

The Cambodian Water Festival is a festival of the extraordinary turnaround of the flow between the Mekong and the Tonle Sap Rivers. The Tonle Sap River overflows with water during the rainy season and is forced to drain upstream into the Tonle Sap Lake.

The water in Tonle Sap Lake flows back towards the sea at the end of the rainy season, supplying the geographical area with plenty of fish and fertile agricultural land. Bon Om Touk is in the fishing season and the rice harvest of the following years.

November in Cambodia is a significant month. Not only does it signal the end of the monsoon season, when heavy rains come down, leaving a way for the dry season ahead, but it also brings cooler temperatures, high water levels, and fishing season greeters.

Locals congregated to the capital city of Phnom Penh for three days from across the country to see the lively boat races taking place along the Tonle Sap River.

In addition to artistic performances, traditional and modern music will also be played as part of the festivities.

Water Festival in Cambodia

What is a better way rather than to honor the festival?

And that’s just what they do with the annual Bon Om Touk, or Water and Moon Festival here in Cambodia.

When do Cambodian people celebrate the water festival?

Cambodia’s Water Festival occurs once a year in October-November and signals the end of the rainy season officially.

Here is the schedule for 2019, 2020, and 2021 Cambodian Water Festival.

  • 2019 (10-12/Nov)
  • 2020 (30/Oct-01/Nov)
  • 2021 (18-20/Nov)

Water Festival in Cambodia

The history of the Cambodian Water Festival (Bon Om Touk)

For centuries, the Water Festival has been held in Cambodia, with evidence found on engravings in the temple walls of Bayon and Banteay Chhmar. The kings who ruled, with their origins rooted in Angkorian times, sent many military forces to fight to defend the kingdom, with the boat races reflecting the Navy’s power and the victories they obtained.

Actually, the Cambodian Water Festival started in the 12th century, as seen by historians, throughout the reign of King Jayavarman VII. Numerous battles were fought and won at this era on the lakes of the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

The Angkorian Empire was famed on the water facing opponents such as the Chams and Siams for its strength.

The occurrence happens on the full moon of the Kadeuk month (the eleventh month of the solar calendar) following the Buddhist calendar.

The full moon is then known as the Harvest Moon and is believed to bring a bountiful rice harvest, another incentive to celebrate, with the full moon’s bright lights reflecting the festivities of the night.

And if that’s not enough motivation to celebrate, then the festival also represents a reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap, which streams into Phnom Penh Mekong River, and is the only river in the world to boast this unusual characteristic.

The festival was a way to appease and impress the water spirits in the coming season to help protect dense rice harvests.

Ancient Angkorian Rulers also used the water festival to display military force and prepare powerful armies for combat. It was the ideal time to check their naval warriors’ training and fighting abilities.

This festival has continued until now, though the festival was plagued with problems when a stampede killed 347 people and injured another 755 in 2010, forcing it to be postponed for the next three years.

What do Cambodian people do throughout the Water Festival?

As one of the Kingdom’s biggest and most popular festivals, many cities and villages are trying to participate by building racing boats. Young men practice extremely hard at the events, which are hosted in Phnom Penh capital city and some other provinces throughout the country, to honorably represent their region.

Throughout the nation, villagers and communities spend the year fixing up their boat, a long, thin wooden craft that can accommodate up to 100 people – and practicing their racing skills on nearby waters before leaving for Phnom Penh to compete against other boats on the shore.

In the style of each city, the race boats are colored and decorated. There are about twenty and can be up to a hundred rowers and one leader in each boat.

Water Festival in Cambodia | What do Cambodian people do throughout the Water Festival?
What do Cambodian people do throughout the Water Festival?

The leader is always at the head of the boat regulating his crew’s speed and tempo. And there are several ceremonies on top of the boat races that occur during Bon Om Touk to thank both the land and water for providing life. It’s amazing to watch the powerful, young men row the beat of war drums with all their efforts.

Bandaet Pratip begins at 7 pm and sees an elegant boat parade floating down the river Tonle Sap. Cambodians would usually make their own and launch them near their homes on the water. People think that the boats would take away any bad energy from them. In some areas, this is still practiced but is not as common as it was before.

The version of Phnom Penh considers a chain of beautifully lit floats presented by the different ministries of the government and the organizations. A brilliant display of fireworks follows the event during the night.

On the last day of the festival, Sampeah Preah Khae occurs and is also regarded as the greeting of the moon. Cambodians will set up a range of food, drink and candle offerings in front of their homes at night before assembling for the third ceremony, Ak Ambok, at midnight pagodas.

Ak Ambok is fried rice in the husk before a giant pestle is pounded. Then the husks are removed and the rice is mixed with the banana and coconut and eaten when the clock strikes 12.

How do Cambodian people celebrate the Water Festival?

Unlike Khmer New Year when the capital empties, people from across the country travel to Phnom Penh during the Water Festival, with an additional two million people crowded into the streets for the races, fireworks and other festivities taking over the city.

The most popular locations to go for the Cambodian Water Festival beside Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Tally yourself fortunate to take part in the vivid, rowdy and fun celebrations!

Somewhat more than four million people appear in Phnom Penh to watch the spectacular boat races. The riverbank is a major hub for food stalls, musicians, and concert events. That is the best spot to watch the races of the boats and the rest of the festivities. Khmer families are going to pick a spot, layout mats with food and beverages and cheer for their favorite teams.

Water-Festival-in-Cambodia | How do Cambodian people celebrate the Water Festival?
How do Cambodian people celebrate the Water Festival? Somebody is anyway always on duty to ensure safety and tranquil atmosphere.

Let’s engage in the Water Festival in Phnom Penh Capital!

Throughout the water festival, if you’re in Cambodia, have fun and enjoy with many street food stalls near the river.

Head to Sisowath Quay and join the crowds

To watch this colorful event captivate the country.

Make friends and hang out with locals

Cheer for your favorite colorful race boat, and take every opportunity to meet some racers.

Start the evening with delicious Khmer cuisine

Enjoy drinks under fireworks displays.

Anticipate hotels to be busy during this period

Book ahead, particularly if you want to check-in at one of the hotels on the riverside, the festival’s great location.

And… it is best to book a table

If you want to claim a top spot for watching the races.

Popular bars along the riverfront

The riverfront of Phnom Penh includes the rooftop terrace of Le Moon, offering ideal views over the combination of Tonle Sap and Mekong and the start of the competition.

The rooftop bars of the FCC and The Quay Boutique Hotel

They are other wonderful places to catch the excitement in the form of races, fireworks and the crowds that are swirling about below.

Hit the streets and try to catch a glance of the boat racing

from Sisowath Quay or head across the Japanese bridge to the quieter riverfront on the Chroy Changva peninsula and watch the races from there.

Water-Festival-in-Cambodia-Phnom Penh

Water Festival Celebration in Siem Reap Town

In any scenario, celebrations are held in towns and villages across Cambodia to mark the Bon Om Touk. It is common for Cambodians to make spiritual offerings to applaud and bring prosperity, as well as to prefer a special banquet of celebration festival dishes such as the famous Cambodian amok, a steamed fish curry.

And there are plenty of celebrations right here in Siem Reap to mark the Water Festival as well. During a three-day period, the Siem Reap River will see large-scale boat races and illuminated processions that will certainly attract large crowds and a fantastic atmosphere.

The city will also host open-air concerts and cultural performances, as well as a wider selection of street vendors than usual, selling food, souvenirs, clothing and just about everything else, especially near the river.

Siem Reap is actually full packed. The two streets along the river are filled with booths that sell everything from crispy insects and tasty Khmer menus to silk goods and cell phones.

Citizens are crowding on the bridges and along Siem Reap River banks to cheer on the races of the boats.

Sometimes, there are also other fun events happening so you need to keep an eye out.

The same as Khmer New Year, Bon Om Touk is above all another effort for Cambodians to spend time with their families and loved ones, and it is a tremendous opportunity for visitors to encounter the sincere warmth of local people, who extend token invitations to tourists to join in the mood of celebration.

If you are in Siem Reap and wish to make friends with the locals, this is your option, wear a friendly smile and it will happen before you know it!

Water Festival in Siem Reap
Water Festival in Siem Reap

Siem Reap Water Festival

Bon Om Touk is among the most significant Cambodian holidays of the year, including the Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival. Taking place on the full moon of Kadeuk’s Buddhist month, usually appearing in November, it has historically signaled the end of the monsoon and presumably a bountiful rice season, the reversal of the current of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the beginning of the fishing season.

Afraid to mark the wrong spot to go and chill out during the water festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia?

Here are things you need to be aware of the Water Festival in Siem Reap!

The Siem Reap Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk, the Cambodian Water Festival, historically signals the end of the Monsoon and Rice season, the termination of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) stream and the beginning of the fishing season, with boat races, water ceremonies, cultural ceremonies, festivities, and fireworks.

The water festival here in Siem Reap will be celebrated for three days. In the first two days, people can enjoy boat races and the last day of the festival there will be many other entertaining activities that remain until late at night.

A collection of street food stalls, pop-up beer bars, live music shows, traditional events, and games are to be seen along the riverbank, the parks and gardens, as well as regular fireworks, and partying on and around Pub Street.

Boat races generally start at 2 pm on the first day and typically end at 5 pm on the next day with a closing ceremony. Head straight for the Old French Quarter riverside zone or the Wat Bo neighborhood on the opposite side if you’re in Siem Reap.

If you’re not likely to be here but are planning to travel to Cambodia in 2020, try to make space for your journey to align with the Siem Reap Water Festival, one of many festive events taking place throughout the country as part of the Cambodia Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk in the Khmer language.

The event would take place throughout Cambodia in 2020 at the end of October and finished at the beginning of November.

Water Festival in Siem Reap
Water Festival in Siem Reap

Significant Details of Water Festival in Siem Reap Town

The Siem Reap Water Festival, not to be confused with Songkran in Thailand, is a popular festival that began during the Khmer Empire reign of King Jayavarman VII.

Explore the complexes of Bayon and Banteay Chhmar founded during King Jayavarman II’s period, whose empire stretched as far as Sukhothai (Thailand) and Champa (central and southern Vietnam), and then notice the bas-reliefs illustrating water festival ceremonies, boat races and navy battles on the water.

The Siem Reap Water Festival of nowadays goes all the way back to the racing events held under King Jayavarman VII, who picked the champions as the sailors would go to war on the lake and ocean. Interestingly, the competitions were a chance for the navy to train and show off their strength and endurance, and it must have been a very inspiring method.

Manuscripts suggest that every November, from the 12th century on, the navy’s accomplishments were celebrated with boat races on the rivers and streams and grateful ceremonies for the productive land and rain that supplied rice for nourishment and intensity.

The celebration has historically included ceremonies containing floating a candle-lit boat (Loy Pratip), a full moon ceremony (Sampeas Preah Khe), and beating and consuming fresh rice, usually with coconut water (Ork Ambok), to give praise to the land and water.

When you are in Siem Reap, you will find that floats highlighted by flashing neon lights have substituted the candles.

It has been said the boats, called pirogues in the old days, operated by both men and women. It contained a dancer who graciously sits on the bow to inspire the rower and it is practiced until now (currently, some of the boats have no dancer).

Water Festival in Siem Reap

A Great Opportunity to Engage Yourself with Cambodian People

Cambodian people love celebrating the events. People prefer to spend time with friends and family. Cambodians make an attempt to celebrate their religious and national holidays with anyone from the elderly people to the youngest boys, with or without pants no matter how rich or poor they are. Cambodians enjoy the vacation social aspect.

They like to be part of a community and to be accompanied by other people who enjoy themselves. Everyone applauded for every racing boat.

The people of Cambodia are absolutely lovely, tolerant, welcoming and friendly. They’re nice to foreigners with their gestures and salutations.

They appear excited when the foreigner wants to learn and share with their culture and traditions.

Throughout the festival, there were many times when people looked at foreign tourists and were pleased to see them engaging, smiling admiringly.

You may be asked if you have a nice time and make an attempt to include yourself in their events!

Commemorating traditional holidays like the Water Festival in Siem Reap with the locals is a fantastic way to get an overview of a place’s history and daily life, as well as having a great time with the people.
A Splendor of Siem Reap Town during Water Festival

Through your time in Cambodia, particularly during national festivities and public holidays, you may have experienced an increasing sense of optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. Once during the Siem Reap Water Festival, a rate entirely different from the one seen before in Cambodia.

Every year, during water festival, the grassy riverside roads are closed to traffic all behind the huge numbers of people clogging the riverbank watching hours of boat races, hundreds of stalls are lined up on the road and fill the parks, and vendors wander the streets with a smile selling all kinds of stuff.

The street food is on a scope that you might not have seen in Siem Reap’s streets before. There are varieties of the menu such as steamed dumplings, grilled meats, and offal on skewers, grilled sausages, pickled vegetables, baby duck eggs, crunchy river crabs, roti, and pancakes.

Water Festival in Siem Reap

Best Spots of the Event in Siem Reap

Throughout the duration of the Water Festival in Siem Reap, if you have listed in your itinerary, head directly for the riverside roads and side streets, opposite the Royal Gardens and Riverside Park, where most of the events take place.

Typically encounters are

  • The stages featuring bands
  • Stalls selling food and drinks
  • Tables and chairs scattered across the parks 
  • Parks will be filled with Cambodian family and friends gatherings

Thus beer bars are set up and stalls are arranged a few days before the boat races

On the first day of the Siem Reap Water Festival, the action on the water typically starts at about 2 pm.

On National Route 6 (the main highway to Phnom Penh)

You can find the starting line for boat races next to Siem Reap’s main bridge, known as the Old Stone Bridge. It is the bridge adjacent to the Royal Gardens and the park along the riverside.

During the Siem Reap Water Festival

The bridge is usually pedestrianized, sometimes on either side of Siem Reap River for 2-3 sections.

Do not waste time trying to target a series of boat races

Usually, race times are 30 minutes to an hour late, with boat races running an hour later than planned, and fireworks beginning half an hour earlier.

On the second day of the Siem Reap Water Festival

A closing ceremony was scheduled for 3 pm, but it commenced fairly close to sunset.

Flexibility and movement are the best advice to be followed

Try to adhere around for the closing ceremony as it is quite a spectacle seeing all the boats all together on the water and the groups cheering as the sun starts falling. If there is a violet sky, it is magic.

Along the evening of the second day

At about 8 pm, several official speeches accompanied by traditional water festivals and full moon ceremonies dating back to the Khmer Empire.

It involves a candlelit ceremony, paper boats (Bror Tip) floating on the river, a rice husk pounding ceremony, the popular shadow-puppet theater-type called Sbek Thom, and more fireworks, live music, eating and drinking.

Being in Siem Reap is a brilliant experience you will never forget.

Water Festival in Siem Reap

How to Travel Smart During the Festival in Siem Reap?

Reserve your lodging in Siem Reap as far in advance as possible. Whilst recently, there have been plenty of hotel and resort rooms available, budget and mid-range accommodation should be booked up weeks before the celebration.

Travelers are mostly Cambodian visitors who prefer to stay in guesthouses.

People from the rural provinces will camp out on the riverbank in tents, under mosquito nets, and on the fold-out beds. The Siem Reap Water Festival is expected to be a major event on the tourist agenda and will draw even more visitors every year, so plan ahead.

Jeopardize the temptation to prepare too far ahead of time because the schedules for the previous Water Festivals in Siem Reap are announced just a few days before the event, hence don’t wait until close to the event for full details about the boat races.

Be versatile and ready to go with the flow. In recent years, the first boat race is scheduled to take place on the first day at 2 pm and the finals and awards at around sunset on the second day. This is Cambodia, though, and things are changing.

Track the weather in Cambodia as there might still be a little rainfall. The event is held on the full moon of Kadeuk’s Buddhist month, which falls in October / November, pointing to the end of the monsoon.
Plan for temples as you would be listed in your schedule. Be polite and dress modestly. While the weather starts to cool down, it will still be warm so always wear loose linens or cotton, a cap, sunscreen, and drink plenty of water.

If a trip to Siem Reap Water Festival in 2020 is yet to be scheduled, visit the official website of Tourism Cambodia in October to make sure the festival is on. Caused by heavy monsoon rains and extensive flooding it has been postponed in the past. In reality, after several weeks of continuous overnight rains, the water levels during the 2014 festival were so heavy that it was almost disrupted.

On a positive note, rain is rare at the end of November, so you ought to be right.

Well related to:

Best things to do in Siem Reap

How many days do you need in Phnom Penh?