It’s not like Glastonbury – there no mud for a start – and it’s definitely not like Coachella. It’s actually a more traditional festival. The ‘Bon Om Touk’ to be specific. That’s the ‘Royal Cambodian Water Festival’ for non-Khmer speaking laypeople like me. Given it has roots dating back to the 1520’s and remains Cambodia’s biggest celebration, we thought you might want to read all about it.
Ready Your Ankor’s
Way back in 1528 King Ang Chan 1st wasn’t too keen on his Khmer Empire being invaded by the Vietnamese. To prevent this, the king ordered his Naval Commander to prepare a counter-invasion. This took the from of two rows of rowing boats led by a Second Battalion in an ark-like sail boat along with a few ground troops. It’s these boats that represent the cornerstone of the festival today. Every year since 1914 – with a brief exception during the days of the Khmer Rouge – the first day of the three day Water Festival celebrations have featured villagers from every province racing ornately carved boats along the Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh.
In more current times, the races have taken on another meaning; marking the end of the monsoon season and the reversal of the Tonle Sap river (a phenomenon in which the build-up of mud during the wet season literally forces the river to change direction).
The Floating Boats
I hope the above has been illuminating? If not, this next bit certainly will be. Quite literally.
For the next two evenings the Quay is lit up by a seemingly endless bright lighted boats that coast along the river, with a magnificent firework display above. When the Navy finally found itself victorious in 1529, the King ordered than an annual liberation campaign occur in celebration. In those days the boats were set afloat and lit by candles. It’s these boats that today’s LED incarnations represent. The fireworks? Well, I guess they are just an extra bit of fun. As was no doubt the case back when the tradition began, this part of the festival is truly a sight to behold.
The festival today
As I type this, rain is pouring outside. Something that’s been happening on and off all day. With that in mind, I’m not sure of how effective the festival is in predicting the end of the rainy season. That doesn’t make the three days any less exciting, however. For me, the sight of millions of Cambodians coming together and, despite their tumultuous history, celebrating an ancient tradition happily and peacefully is something I will never forget. Nor, I have any doubt, is it something you would either!