Thousands of Khmers flocked to the banks of the Mekong river last week during the
three-day Water Festival celebrations.
The festivities followed by just a few days the observance of Prince Norodom Sihanouk's
70th birthday which also brought Khmers of all ages and from many parts of the nation
to Phnom Penh to regale the Prince.
The highlight of the Water Festival was the traditional boat races held at the Chatomuk,
the area in front of the Royal Palace where the Tonle Sap merges with the Mekong.
The rowing regattas, although only re-established in 1990 after a 20-year hiatus,
date back many centuries into Khmer antiquity. Some Khmers are uncertain as to their
"I don't know what [the festival] means," said one man from Prey Veng.
"Just go and ask our grandfathers. The scene used to be very crowded for this
festival, and now looks the same as it did before l970," he said, referring
to the years before Sihanouk was toppled.
Chey Sann, 66, said that the festival had no connection with Buddhism. "Bon
Om Tuk [Boat Racing Festival] demonstrated the power of the navy of King Jayavarman
VII," he explained. "During the first two days the troops are sent out
to test the enemy's strength, then on the last day they fight for victory."
The Water Festival coincides with two others: Ok Ambok (The Pounding of Rice) and
Sampeah Preah Khai (Full Moon Prayers).
"In Buddhist scriptures there is a female giant who can predict the weather,
the rain," said Sann. "The farmers believe in her power and they hold the
ceremony every year to honor her."
According to Sann, Sampeah Preah Khai is dedicated "to the power of a rabbit
that took its own life in a fire to serve as food for an emaciated old man who was
a god in human form."
"Ok Ambok and Sampeah Preah Khai begin at midnight when the moon becomes full,"
said Sann. "People eat Ambok with their faces turned up to see the rabbit's
figure drawn by the god in the moon."
According to Khmer mythology, the rabbit symbolizes fidelity, honesty, and justice.
From the park in front of the Palace, down Lenin Boulevard and on to Independence
Monument, thousands of Khmers packed the streets and grassways until midnight each
night during the three-day festival; relaxing, picnicking or strolling about.
"I am too old, and I am afraid of not being able to see this festival again.
I am very happy," said Chey Sann.