Water Festival on the Banks of the Mekong

One of the biggest and most extravagant festivals in Cambodia, the water festival (or Bonn Om Touk) is a spectacle not to be missed. Over three days during the full moon in November, up to a million people from all over the country and beyond flock to the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers in Phnom Penh.

They come to watch as hundreds of brightly-coloured boats, some up to 20 metres in length and each with over 50 crazy paddlers, do battle in highly competitive races. Each intricately decorated boat is a representative from one of Cambodia’s 21 provinces and they race for top honours in a tradition that dates back to the powerful navy of King Jayavarman II, the 9th-century founder of the great Angkorian Empire.

The Water Festival also marks the start of the fishing season and the reversal of the current in the Tonle Sap river. This in itself is a spectacle to behold. At the height of the rainy season, the Mekong river flows with such an incredible power that water is forced back up into the adjoining Tonle Sap river, causing it to reverse its current and begin flowing northward into the Tonle Sap Lake. When the water levels begin to subside, the current reverses to its normal direction once again.

This is when the festival takes place and also when vast quantities of fish are ushered back into the Mekong as the water empties from the lake. For the tourists that come to witness the spectacle this is an exhilarating experience, while for local people it is also traditionally a time of thanksgiving to the river for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish.

There are plenty of festivities throughout the three-day celebration to keep visitors entertained. At night the sky is lit with fireworks and the boats are illuminated as they cruise the water in a beautiful display. Visitors can sample traditional food, music and dance, while crafts, games and activities keep the entire family busy.

The dates of the festival are not easy to predict as they rely on the vagaries of the moon. We have been as accurate as we can but it would be wise to contact the tourist authority if you want to ensure that you don’t miss this stunning event.