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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This would be cool to experience for sure!
Thanks for reading Anna, Bon Om Touk Water Festival is definitely a fun time to visit Siem Reap if you can handle the crowds.
This looks amazing, hopefully 2022 will see a return of festivities. I like reading about festivals and events that are authentic but open to visitors as opposed to played up to pull in the tourist £££.
I’ll pass on the pigs head though!
I agree, there is absolute nothing about Bon Om Touk that panders to the western tourist. You really do just have to take it as it is. Thanks for reading and commenting Helen.
Fabulous colors, people and boats. Looks like a traveling carnival. I could really go for the food tasting, might even nibble on a pig’s ear. How many races would there be? Do they crown a champion? Or is it just for bragging rights. In Western culture this would be a gambler’s paradise.
Hey Memo, I only actually witnessed one race from start to finish. I believe there were about half a dozen and that there were awards for each race, as well as a trophy for the fastest finish of the day. I didn’t think of the gambling aspect but you’re right, and now I’m wondering if there’s also an element of that among locals too.
Always great to be in the right place during local festivals. You can really get a sense of the people then, both good and bad. Love that all the traditional foods are available, but I too will pass on the pig’s head. Happy Sunday Leighton. Allan
Happy Sunday Allan! Usually I find myself hiding from huge, noisy festivals with loads of people. But I do look back fondly on this one and am glad I made the time for it.
Sounds a lot better than the ridiculous water-bomb festival in Thailand which you mention and which we were keen to avoid. I wonder if this boat race spectacular ends with an overall winner – it’s often the case that the ultimately victorious village or team gets significant bragging rights for the next twelve months, like draping its colours around the town for a year. Must have been a cool event to witness, Leighton.
I have the feeling that you’re correct and that bragging rights were also a big part of this event, although there were trophies too. Songkran is MENTAL, once was enough (I have written that one up on these pages). This festival was much more my cup of tea. Thanks for reading guys.
As an outsider looking in, this festival would be great fun to attend, and getting to try the foods would be a huge bonus. I would be sad to see the beggars too, but I’m not a big fan of huge crowds of people. Perhaps that’s why we like the wide-open spaces of our national parks. Though I did give in a few years ago and make it to a Rolling Stones concert that was very crowded! Nevertheless, your posts still make me want to book a trip to Cambodia!
Well if you’re gonna do a big crowd, The Rolling Stones seems like the right moment to make an exception 😉 I’m the same Kelly, these days I would do almost anything to avoid an event like this. Part of it is COVID, but part of it is just us and our preferences I think. Thanks, as ever, for your support of the blog and it’s great to see that you’re not “anonymous” anymore.
This sounds and looks like a great festival. I’m not that keen on crowded places, but I would love to experience this and taste all the food.
Seems like we view this the same way Natty. Too many people but worth it as a one-off cultural experience. Thanks for reading.
Wow!!! Such colour!!!
Thanks for dropping by Marie. Bon Om Touk is indeed Siem Reap at its most colourful.
Yes, that looks like a proper water festival – I love the colour! And no thank you, I’ll skip the pig’s head … I like bananas more (next to the “delicacy”) ☺️.
I’ve never been a huge fan of bananas, but yeah I’d definitely choose one over any part of a pig’s head. Thanks for checking out Bon Om Touk Water Festival, Corna.
The water festival must be so exciting to watch with all the boats, festivities, food and local life. I think I would pass at dining on a pigs head though.
Thanks for stopping by Marion and checking out Bon Om Touk Water Festival.
What a wonderful time to be in Cambodia, for the Bon Om Touk Water Festival! It’s one thing to travel to a place and see it when it isn’t a holiday, but it’s another to see a place go all out in celebration! Wonderful that the water festival is resuming this year, especially after a difficult two years, and perhaps someday due to timing, I hope to experience it, too!
You’re right Rebecca, you get a special insight into Siem Reap during this celebration, I’m glad it appeals to you. Hope all is well with you across the pond!
It would be a real treat to see Bon Om Touk Water Festival. Trying the local cooking would be something to look forward to. I’d like to try it with someone who knew what we were eating. I see that the festival had a couple of famous guests — Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Yeah, I hear that Mickey and Minnie are regulars at Bon Om Touk. Thanks for stopping by John.
Thank you for this colourful presentation. I left Phnom Penh in the days leading up to the festival, so I witnessed the preparations, such as the training runs and the construction of the grandstand, inspected by the high ranking police officers arriving in their luxurious air-conditioned 4x4s. In a few pictures you learn about a country.
Vey true. Glad you managed to catch a few glimpses of the pre-festival excitement, thanks for reading.
How neat to participate in the Bon Om Touk by watching some of the dragon boat racing. Being tall definitely has its perks! Some of the food on the other hand, I would have passed too!
Yes, one of those occasions where I was thankful for my height. The reaction to this article seems unanimous. Thumbs up for the festival 👍 thumbs down for the pig’s head 👎 Thanks for reading!
What a great festival. I love that it’s for the locals and not taken over by tourists. And also that it’s dragon boats and not water bombing! Maggie
Yes I’ll take dragon boats over water fights anytime. Thanks for taking the time to read Maggie, hope your trip is going well.
Love the vibrant photos and colours of the festival!
Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the thread!
Wow! This looks like an absolute blast of an event to experience! Vibrant colors, athletic skills on display, crowds of excited viewers, and delicious food…well except for the pig head, I’m afraid that would be a hard pass for me. Excellent post all around! 🙂 p.s. I visited the Ryman for the first time this last weekend and I thought of you. What an amazing place that is!
Glad you enjoyed this look at Siem Reap in celebratory mode, Meg. Ah The Ryman, it’s still my dream to see a favourite artist play there. Looking forward to the blog post.,
It all looks very colorful and inviting; except for the hog’s head! I hope that the 2022 festival is a huge success.
Thanks Tricia, I actually think a scaled down version of Bon Om Touk (in terms of numbers of visitors) would be perfect ha ha.
Looks a lot more fun than Henley where many pretend they know what’s happening
Ha ha never done the Henley festival but seen photos and videos.
This festival looks like so much fun! The Dragon Boat racing seems very exciting and the boats also seem very vibrant and beautiful. I also like how there are many local cuisine dishes, and provides an opportunity to really try what is typically enjoyed.
Thanks Allie, I’m glad you enjoyed this look at Bon Om Touk Water Festival. Thanks as always for reading and commenting.
Looks like a great time.
Thanks for stopping by Erik.
This festival looks like great fun! And quite a gathering place. Cambodia didn’t seem as heavily populated as some other Asian countries, but this may prove that assumption wrong. The boats themselves look so beautiful.
Hey Ruth, it’s great to hear from you. Generally I felt Cambodia was way less populated than just about every other Asian country I’ve visited. But yeah, on days like this you do think… whoa! I’m glad Siem Reap wasn’t like that every day.
This must have been a little shock to the system after previously peaceful days but what a wonderful experience all the same!
Hey Holly, great to have you back! I normally flee from large crowds but this festival was fun to witness.
Thanks – got caught up in the chaos of life and missed reading your adventures!Yeah I would definitely flee from large crowds too!
Excellent article! We’ve read that the festival is cancelled in PP- any word about the Siem Reap one? And is it the same dates?
Hey Cat, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I have sent my Khmer friend a message to enquire about this year’s Bon Om Touk festivities. Bear with me and I’ll send another message when I know more.
Oh Leighton thank you so much! I’ve been trying to find any info for a couple of hours now! You’re a star. Xxx
No worries, watch this space. In the meantime I have dozens of articles from Siem Reap and across Cambodia if you’re curious. Happy reading!
Hi Cat, I’m afraid there is no definitive answer about Bon Om Touk in Siem Reap. There has been a lot of flooding across the city apparently due to heavy rains, so there is a doubt. But my friend says a decision will be made closer to the time. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.
Thank you for checking for me! Either way we know we will love Cambodia and are so excited. Have a great day.
This is so beautiful!
Thanks for reading and for your comment!