Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Cambodia.
Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Cambodia.
I’ve always enjoyed Siem Reap’s predominantly sleepy vibe. Even 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 lazy 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. Typically held in September or October, the exact date of the celebrations varies each year. In 2015, when I was living there, it fell between the 24th and the 26th of November.
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. A Khmer style thanksgiving day, if you will, that kicks off the fishing season.
I remember being somewhat startled by just how transformed Siem Reap was for the festival. Indeed there were thousands of people, mostly Khmer, flooding into the city centre for three days of non-stop partying.
As someone who’s seen a fair bit of Asia over the years, I’d already had some experience with water festivals. Particularly in Thailand, where locals attack each other with water guns for the often chaotic Songkran Festival.
Happily, that’s not the vibe at Bon Om Touk. Rather, dragon boat racing is the main event, a tradition celebrated to mark a famous Cambodian naval victory. The battle in question took place against an invading Cham Army on Tonle Sap Lake in 1177.
Bon Om Touk Water Festival.
Festival goers watch the boat races unfold from the banks of the Siem Reap River. Some get here really early in order to claim the best viewing spots. Right enough I was left counting my lucky stars that I was tall, otherwise I wouldn’t have seen much of the action.
Those who aren’t too fussed about the races use the event to gorge on traditional dishes. And there’s certainly plenty of choice, with hundreds of food stalls and makeshift restaurants springing up all around the river.
This makes Bon Om Touk one of the best times to get to grips with an array of delicious Cambodian dishes. Just follow the locals and hop from stall to stall trying a little bit of everything.
Although like me, you might decide that there are limits to your culinary adventurousness. This was my second Siem Reap pig’s head sighting following my explorations of Psar Leu Market. Cambodians really are fond of the dish, which they have baked, roasted or grilled.
I remember one of my Khmer colleagues warning me to be on guard during the festival. Apparently, this is one of the rare occasions when crime becomes an issue in Siem Reap. Not violent crime, I should point out, but petty theft of valuable belongings like handbags and mobile phones. While I didn’t personally experience any trouble, I did notice a marked increase in beggars all over the city.
Adventures in Siem Reap.
Some of these were provincial families, who travel to Siem Reap in order to beg for money and pick up free food from the markets. It was sad to see, as some of the families had disabled children, many of whom walked about shoeless.
The boat races can be quite thrilling, especially if they’re closely contested like the ones that day back in 2015. Usually, each boat belongs to a different village. A sponsor, such as a local business or government official, often helps with the cost of the boat and any necessary equipment. In the days leading up to the festival, you can see participants practicing on the river. Or maybe huddled on the bank hand-painting their vessels.
Prior to the pandemic, Siem Reap accommodation prices would surge around the dates of Bon Om Touk. In recent years the Cambodian government has cancelled the event due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing the word on the street is that the 2022 celebrations should go ahead. Here’s hoping Cambodia gets to have its grand annual celebration!
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