Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Biggest Water Festival to date expected this week

Biggest Water Festival to date expected this week

Biggest Water Festival to date expected this week


Approximately four million people to keep Khmer traditions alive by

joining this year's celebrations, which have their roots in ancient

Cambodian history

Photo by:


Phnom Penh's Dangkor district rowing team practices for the Water Festival.


Cantina, Metro Bar and Le Cedre on Sisowath Quay are the only bars and restaurants along the riverfront that have confirmed their closure during the Water Festival. The Mexican restaurant Cantina will be closed the whole week of the festival, reopening Sunday. The recently opened  riverside branch of the Lebanese restaurant Le Cedre will be closed from Monday to Thursday, and the Metro Bar will be closed Tuesday to Thursday. On Thursday, Chow Rooftop Bar will be hosting an "Above the Crowd" daytime Water Festival party with an open bar and barbecue, as well as tunes by DJ Illest from 11am to 4pm. Tickets are US$25 pre-sale and $28 at the door. 

TO the people pouring into the capital, the Water and Moon Festival starting on Tuesday and ending on Thursday is a delight, or at least a good business opportunity.

But to some of the regular residents of the capital, the huge crowds drawn by the festival can be a nuisance. Many choose to leave the city during the festival, and if you do not like crowds that may be a good idea.

Record attendance

This year a record four million people are expected to join the celebrations, making this year's Water Festival the biggest ever.

But few realise that the Water and Moon Festival that draws millions to the capital for the three days of celebration is actually not one but four separate ceremonies at the same time.

These are the Regatta (Bon Om Tuk), the Procession of Illuminated Floats (Bandet Pratip), the Festival of Salutation to the Moon (Sampeah Preah Khe), and the Offering of Bananas and Om Bok (Auk Om Bok).

The Water and Moon Festival is always celebrated so that the final day of the festival marks the full moon of the Buddhist lunar month of Khe Kadek.

"We are celebrating the festival ... according to traditional ceremonies of the past, which considered this time as the end of the harvest season and the end of the seasonal work," said Chea Kean, deputy director of the National and International Festival Committee.

"Traditionally the King organised the festivals to be celebrated over [three days] to let all the people in the whole country enjoy the celebrations," Chea Kean said.

The Water and Moon Festival marks the end of the rainy season and the reversal of the Tonle Sap.

The Tonle Sap water system reverses its course with the onset of the rainy season around April, flooding the Great Lake to the north with vast quantities of fresh water pouring down the Mekong from Tibet.

When the dry season arrives, the Tonle Sap returns to its southward course, draining the lake back into the Mekong. Home to more than 850 species of fish, the river system is Cambodia's lifeblood and the Water and Moon Festival is also celebrated at this time to give thanks to the rivers.

The regatta

The most famous of the ceremonies is the The Regatta festival, where hundreds of dragon boats compete for the King's praise as large crowds cheer on the riverfront. However, the history behind the regatta festival is more serious. The Regatta festival celebrates King Jayavarman VII's 1178 victory over the Champa Kingdom after a naval war that took place on the Tonle Sap river.

We are celebrating the festival ... according to traditional ceremonies of the past.

"We celebrate the Water Festival every year in memory of the fighting ceremony and the protection of our territory, as well as to follow the traditional Prumanh [an ancient Khmer religion]," said Chea Kean. "The festival represents both history and religion."
The Regatta Festival was revived after a 20-year hiatus in 1990. The festival was cancelled after the coup d'etat by Lon Nol toppled Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Between 1983 and 1989 Phnom Penh held boat races along the waterfront, but it was only a year later that it became a national affair.

Every year since its revival, the festival has grown in size - from less than 150 participating boats and "several thousand people" joining in the celebrations in the early 1990s to the 434 boats and around four million people expected to take part this year.

Following the boat race is the Procession of Illuminated Floats when large floats, or Pratips, usually sponsored by the different government ministries, form a floating parade along the waterfront with fireworks exploding in the background. Traditionally, spectators also launch their own small floating altars with offerings.

On the final day of the festival and the evening of the full moon, the Festival of Salutation to the Moon, or Sampeah Preah Khe, and the Offering of Bananas and Om Bok, or Auk Om Bok, take place.

On that night Cambodians gather at pagodas all over the country for the Offering of Bananas and Om Bok with bananas and special cakes called om bok.

The Regatta Festival and the Procession of Illuminated Floats can been seen from the riverfront at the Phnom Penh side of the river, and the best views are from near the Royal Palace or from the rooftop terraces at some of the riverfront restaurants. The boat races can also bee seen from the Chruoy Changvar side of the river.

The Water Festival is also celebrated in Siem Reap, where it began in 1994. However, the celebrations there are on a much smaller scale than in the capital.


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