Cambodian Water Festival – A Grand National Celebration

Cambodian Water Festival – A Grand National Celebration
04 Nov 2015

Who would have thought that a naturally occurring event in the waters of the world would merit a grand carnivalesque festival? Leave it to the Cambodians to formulate this festival around this phenomenon and deeply root it to their history, culture and traditions. This, in a way, encapsulates what Bom On Touk or the Cambodian Water Festival is all about.

This grand celebration is one of the highlights of the Cambodian year. It is celebrated as a national holiday where millions flock to the capital of Phnom Penh where festivities are held near the Royal Palace area and within the waters, of course. The festival usually takes place in three days. For 2015, it will happen from November 24 to 26.

There are many components to this festival’s history and happenings. Primarily a thanksgiving type of festival, this happens during the full moon of the Buddhist calendar right after the rainy season in the latter part of a given year. Cambodia relies heavily on the waters within the country, and the main body of water featured in this festival is the Tonle Sap river and lake system which connects to the Greater Mekong River. Experts say that this river and lake system is the only body of water in the world to have a reverse flow. This means that twice a year, the flow of the river current changes directions. This is primarily due to the extra water added on during the monsoon season. During November, the monsoon season ends, and this is when the reversal of the water flow happens. And this is primarily a thanksgiving type of festival because the Cambodians acknowledge the power and blessings of the land and the waters to their culture. Their country reaps the harvests from the land and the abundance of aquatic life, and they are thankful for that. So it somehow parallels the other Asian countries’ harvest moon festivals happening around this time of the year as well.

Another component of the festival is the huge boat races. This practice dates back to their earlier kingdom’s history where former Angkor-era kings conducted a periodic race to see which village had the best boat racing team. It was like an audition for possible candidates to add to their strong naval army. Eventually, these yearly races also became ritualistic honoring rites to honor the naval victories accumulated by the Khmer empire.

The modern-day interpretation of the Water Festival, then, is almost the same: the honoring and celebration of their rich heritage and culture by having a grand festival and carnival air complete with live musical performances, various food and craft stalls, fireworks displays, and the partaking of their traditional food fare specifically identified with this festival named auk ambok (made up of rice, coconut and banana mix prepared the Khmer way — just find out how that’s done!).

While the 2010 festival dampened the mood of this event due to a tragic stampede that happened (killing hundreds of festival goers in the process), the government decided to cancel this event for three years. It made a comeback in 2014, and festival holders hope to pick up the festivities again, like in older times, this 2015. And the friendly Khmer people will definitely welcome visitors.

So go with the flow and fly over for a visit to the water fest!

Written by: Olivia Cantor

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