Visit Cambodia's Water Festival for a Splashing Good Time

Bon Om Touk, Cambodia's Riverside Celebration in mid-November

Water Festival races off Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Bruno Morandi/robertharding/Getty Images

The Cambodian Water Festival (variously spelled in the original Khmer as Bon Om Touk, or Bon Om Thook, or Bonn Om Teuk, or Bon Om Tuk) takes place once a year, on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, the 12th day of the Khmer Lunar Calendar (usually in November). It celebrates a major natural occurrence: the reversing flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River.

For most of the year, the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season arrives in June, the Mekong rises, reversing the flow to dump water into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops once more, allowing the current to reverse again, emptying the excess waters of Tonle Sap back into the Mekong.

This natural occurrence is celebrated in Cambodia with three days of festivals, fluvial parades, boat races, fireworks, and general merriment, if the authorities haven't cancelled the celebrations (as they have been known to do). 

Relative to the Gregorian Calendar, Bon Om Touk occurs on the following dates:

  • 2018 – November 22
  • 2019 – November 11
  • 2020 – November 31
Palace guards escort Brahmin priests to the river in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
 Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

An Ancient Thanks to the River

Then as now, Tonle Sap is a major focus of life for many Cambodians. It's a source of livelihood for fishermen and farmers alike - it's rich in fish stocks, and the silt deposits left by the floods fertilize the fields. No wonder Cambodians have celebrated Bon Om Touk for centuries - it's a way to give back to the river that's given them so much.

Bon Om Touk dates back to the 12th century, to the time of the Angkorian King Jayavarman VII. The Water Festival was celebrated by the King's Navy to kick off the Cambodian fishing season - the fluvial festivities are meant to keep the river divinities happy, ensuring a bountiful harvest of rice and fish for the year to come.

A competing story holds that Bon Om Touk was a way for the King to prepare his navy for battle. At Bayon near Siem Reap and Banteay Chhmar near the Thai border, naval battles have been carved into the stonework, depicting boats not that much different from the boats that race on Tonle Sap today.

Three ceremonies underpin the entire Bon Om Touk celebration:

  • Loy Pratip: an evening fluvial parade, featuring beautifully-illuminated boats lighting up the waterways. Government institutions sponsor each of the boats on parade.
  • Sampeas Preah Khe: the salutation to the moon. The full moon is supposed to be a good sign for the coming harvest, which is why Cambodians make sure to give thanks to it on Bon Om Touk, and pray for a bountiful harvest ahead.
  • Auk Ambok: at midnight, celebrants gather at temples to eat ambok ("flattened rice"), a holiday rice dish. Ambok is simply rice fried in the husk, pounded to remove the husk, and mixed with banana and coconut.
A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap after a race.
 Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Three Day Celebration

Bon Om Touk lasts three whole days. Many out-of-towners converge on Tonle Sap, whole communities going en masse to enter their boats in competition.

People come from far and wide to join the celebrations. School is closed, and most workers go on vacation. Upwards of a million Cambodians gather at the river banks to celebrate; those who can't find hotel rooms often just camp out along the streets!

The colorful racing boats are arguably the main stars of the event. They have bright paint schemes, often with eyes painted on the prow to protect against evil. The biggest boats are over a hundred feet long, crewed with up to eighty oarsmen.

Unlike Western boat races, Cambodian boat crews face forward. Many boat crews are complemented with a colorfully-costumed lady at the prow dancing to the beat of the drums.

For the first two days, races are run with two boats each, with the big race happening on the last day, when all the boats take to the river to compete.

While the contestants pair off to compete in the middle of the river, the river's edge teems with boat crews practicing for their upcoming run, making for a brilliant display with their colorful shirts festooned with their sponsors' logos.

Fireworks explode behind a portrait of Norodom Sihamoni, the king of Cambodia.
Luc Forsyth/Getty Images 

In the evenings, the festivities continue with carnival rides, traditional music performances, and dances.

A wholesome carnival atmosphere prevails for the Water Festival's duration - food and drink overflow in the streets, Khmer pop bands entertain the crowds, and the riversides are packed to capacity with punters cheering their favorite boats on.

Where to go

The festivities are at their most fun in the capital. In Phnom Penh, you can join the throngs at Sisowath Quay fronting the Mekong River, but watch out for petty thievery.

What's the next best thing to being in the thick of the action? Watching the boat races from the terrace bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club on 363 Sisowath Quay - you can have a relaxed drink while getting a full view of the river races.

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