Equal parts bacchanal, regatta and thanksgiving celebration, Cambodia's annual Water
Festival, or Bon Om Tuk, transformed Phnom Penh into a carnival town for three days
Hundreds of thousands flocked from all over Cambodia to watch the boat races on the Tonle Sap during the three-day Water Festival, Bon Om Tuk, from November 15 until 17.
Along the riverside, throngs of people under the baking sun craned forward to cheer
the vivid dragon boats as they knifed through the muddy waters of the Tonle Sap.
Stalls hawking everything from natural wicker baskets to neon-colored balloon dolls
mushroomed overnight on streets near the river. The vendors, many of them from the
provinces, will disappear on Saturday as quickly as they arrived.
So beguiling was the festival that it even managed to alter the capital's biorhythms:
Though Phnom Penh typically beds down before 10 pm, parents were seen dragging bleary-eyed
children away from the festivities well past midnight.
Revelers have the moon, the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, and the mighty Ankorean
king Jayavarman VII to thank for the holiday.
The Water Festival is held on the full moon in November during the rainy season,
marking one of the world's most dramatic riparian phenomena.
The Tonle Sap river reverses its course with the rainy season, flooding the Tonle
Sap lake to the north with vast quantities of fresh water. When the dry season arrives,
the Tonle Sap reverts to its usual southward course, draining the lake basin-along
with rich silt deposits-into the Mekong. Home to 850 species of fish, the river system
is Cambodia's lifeblood.
"Cambodians have the water festival so they can salute the river, and see the
water off as it recedes," said Him Chhem, Secretary of State in the Ministry
of Culture and Fine Arts.
A captain urges his crew towards the finish line during Bon Om Tuk, the Water Festival, on the Tonle Sap.
Chhem said the festival's main attraction-the dragon boat races-honored a different
aspect of Cambodian history.
In 1178, King Jayavarman VII waged a fierce naval battle against the Chams invading
the Khmer empire. Nearly 830 years later, Bon Om Tuk's dragon boat races honor the
Cambodian national hero's resounding victory. This year marks the 15th anniversary
of the dragon boat races since the tradition was revived in 1990 after a 20-year
hiatus. The event stopped after the coup d'etat by Lon Nol toppled then-Prince Norodom
Sihanouk in 1970.
This year, nearly 400 boats and over 20,000 rowers from across Cambodia raced the
1.7 km from the port to the Royal Palace. Also included for the first time were 20
boat crews from other countries along the Mekong, including Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam
and Laos. China was invited, but did not attend.
Cambodian racers began arriving last Sunday; many piled atop trucks and vans for
the dusty ride into Phnom Penh from their far-flung home provinces.
Pin Sovan, 34, arrived to the city from Kampong Leang district in Kampong Chhnang
province. He said that his boat, named "Puthisen Meanchey Boromei Por Andead,"
is well known among the racers. Standing amid dozens of his teammates in matching
yellow shirts, Sovan said that he had raced in five other Water Festivals, and he
looked forward to many more.
King Norodom Sihamoni arrives to open the Water Festival.
"This is an important part of Khmer culture," he said. "And everybody
has a really good time."
Tak Seounge, 65, came to Phnom Penh from Kampong Thom "many years ago"
as part of a dragon boat team. But he said his racing days are long behind him.
"I am here to cook for the racers," he said. "We cook them rice and
pork, and some fish."
He said an added benefit is getting to watch the races from the banks of the river,
near the boat's campsite.
First-time observers of the races might find the format and scoring, as well as the
large number of winners, somewhat confusing. The race is run on a knockout format:
each boat competes in one race a day, and only against one other boat. The winner
of that race goes through, and the next day competes against the winner of another
two-boat race from day one. In the event of a tie, both boats pass through as winners.
By the end of the third day, boats that win or draw in all three races are pronounced
the first-class winners.
An elegant skipper seems almost to be dancing.
The moon is the guest of honor on the final night of the Water Festival, which also
coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. Cambodians
believe that the full moon is a good omen that portends a bountiful harvest. On this
night, called Auk Ambok, or "Salute the Moon," people gather to give thanks
to the moon and to pray for the coming growing season. Special food is prepared for
this occasion that includes fruits, vegetables and Ambok, a traditional rice dish.
The boat races commemorate King Jayavarman VII's victory over the Champa kingdom in 1178.
Despite its obvious significance, Chhem cautioned against reading too deeply into
the history and cultural significance of the Water Festival.
"It's just like in Europe, when people take vacations," he explained. "Farmers
in the provinces are finished with the hard work of the harvest, and they want to
take a vacation to the city. They deserve a vacation."