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Travel Report: Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Cambodia.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival Siem Reap Cambodia November 2015

November 2015. I’ve always enjoyed Siem Reap’s predominantly sleepy vibe. Back during my first spell here I quickly learned to stay away from the frenetic Old Market and irksome Pub Street. Despite being the gateway to the world famous Angkor Temples, I never had trouble finding a sleepy cafe to write in or a largely ignored pagoda to visit. In fact, the only time I experienced Siem Reap in full party mode was for its annual water festival, Bon Om Touk. Held in either September or October, the exact date of the festival varies each year. In 2015 it fell between the 24th and the 26th of November.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival Siem Reap Cambodia

Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Siem Reap.

Dating back to the thirteenth century, Bon Om Touk marks the end of the rainy season and is a grand celebration of water as a key component of daily life. I remember being somewhat startled by just how transformed Siem Reap was that year. There were thousands of people (mostly Khmer) flooding the city centre for three days of non-stop celebrations.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival Siem Reap.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Siem Reap.

Boat racing is the main event, a tradition that goes back to a famous Cambodian military victory. The battle in question was with an invading Cham army in 1177. Siem Reap’s various neighborhoods compete in the races, with each group clearly identified by different coloured outfits.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival.

Boat racing Bon Om Touk Water Festival Siem Reap Cambodia

Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Siem Reap.

Visitors watch the action unfold from the banks of the Siem Reap River. Some families set up camp for the day by the various tent restaurants that cook up local dishes around the clock. It’s certainly a great time of year to sample the local cuisine.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival 2015 Siem Reap Cambodia

Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Siem Reap.

I remember one of my Khmer colleagues warning me to be on guard during the festival. Apparently over two hundred and fifty thousand people flood in over the three days. As a result, there’s a sharp increase in thieves and beggars. I didn’t personally experience any trouble, but noticed a definite presence of what I can only describe as unfortunates.

Some of these were weathered provincial families, with children dressed in rags. Furthermore, there were a few aggressive beggars tagging themselves onto tourists. That said, the overall atmosphere was celebratory.

Visit Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Bon Om Touk Water Festival Siem Reap Cambodia

Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Siem Reap.

The festival also includes a huge market, with local food and handicraft stalls spread out all over the city. The main concentration huddles right around the riverbanks. Needless to say accommodation prices usually surge around the dates of the festival. But now, in these uncertain times of COVID-19, it’s not even clear if the event will take place in 2020. For more info on Bom Om Touk, check out this cool article by movetocambodia.com.

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3 Comments

  • Memo

    Love the community competitions. These would have been fun to watch, as much for the food and the crowds as for the boats.

    August 20, 2020 - 9:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Very much so! But sadly no word on if it’s going through this year. Khmer New Year seemed to go through ok, so there’s hope.

      August 20, 2020 - 9:57 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    That looks like a great time to be in Siem Reap. Otherwise I’m not a fan of the city.

    August 21, 2020 - 2:59 am Reply

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