THE TRADITION OF THE WATER FESTIVAL
Not to be confused with Songkran in Thailand, the Water Festival in Cambodia, which is called Bon Om Tuk (also spelt Bon Om Touk) in the Khmer language, is a traditional celebration that dates back to the Khmer Empire and reign of King Jayavarman VII.
The Water Festival in Cambodia occurs on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, which generally falls in October or November.
The Water Festival marks the end of the monsoon and a bountiful rice season, the reversal of the Tonle Sap current, and the start of the fishing season, with boats races, water rituals, and celebrations. Siem Reap accommodation fills up fast during the festival so best to book early.
In Phnom Penh the boat races traditionally take place on the Tonle Sap and people watch the races from the Sisowath Quay waterfront. Two million tourists were expected in the capital for the 2014 Phnom Penh festival.
In early November, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the cancellation of the 2015 Water Festival in Phnom Penh due to low water levels and recent drought in Cambodia. It’s therefore predicted that the 2015 Siem Reap Water Festival will be especially lively with Cambodians from all over the country converging on ‘Temple Town’ for the festivities.
The long Naval history of the Water Festival
Visit the temples of Bayon and Banteay Chhmar that were built during the reign of King Jayavarman II, whose kingdom extended as far as Sukhothai (Thailand) and Champa (central and south Vietnam), and you will see bas reliefs depicting water festival ceremonies, boat races and navy battles on water.
Today’s water festival in Cambodia dates back to the regattas that were held under King Jayavarman VII, who chose the champions as the sailors who would go into battle on the lake and seas. The races were also a way for the navy to practice and show off their strength and stamina and it must have been quite a motivating tool.
Inscriptions indicate that from the 12th century on, the victories of the navy were celebrated every November with boat races on the rivers and lakes and ceremonies of gratitude for the fertile land and rain that provided rice for sustenance and strength.
Traditionally, the festival featured ceremonies that included the floating of an illuminated boat (Loy Pratip), a full moon ceremony (Sampeas Preah Khe), and the pounding and eating of new rice, generally with coconut water (Ork Ambok), to give thanks to the land and water.
In the old days, illumination was by candle-light, but if you’re in Siem Reap you’ll notice the candles have been replaced by floats illuminated by flashing neon lights.
It’s said that in the old days, the boats (called pirogues) – manned by both men and women (and in Siem Reap we had two boats crewed by women in 2014) – had a dancer who moved gracefully on the bow to motivate the rowers. There are no dancers these days. In Siem Reap in 2014, the water level was so high that even the rowers had to duck as the boats move under the bridge!