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Water Festival - Bon Om Touk

Last weekend we joined over two million people who gathered in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival. We had seen the boats practicing throughout October, and although the threat of crowds and petty crime turned many away, we embraced the festival spirit and stayed to see how Phnom Penh celebrates.

Unlike Pchum Ben where Khmer locals head home to the provinces, Bon Om Touk invites everyone to the Riverside. Our calm paved space used for walks, adhoc football games, and listening to aerobics classes slowly disappeared under millions of flip flopped feet, picnic blankets, water coolers, and balloon stalls. Smokey aromas embraced the crowds as locals snacked on traditional foods. Every evening at six and nine PM fireworks boomed above the crowd, a million faces turned towarding skyward.

For three days rowers competed in races down the river. Starting at the Japanese Bridge long dragon boats, some with up to 70 rowers, squared off to race to the Royel Palace where the Tonle Sap joins the Mekong River. Norodom Sihamoni, the King of Cambodia, Hun Sen, Cambodia's Prime Minister, and Bun Rany, the First Lady, all presided over the races, their pagoda in prime position at the finish line.

This year there appeared three boats with an all female crew. The Cham community were also invited to participate, Hun Sen using the occassion to foster a more inclusive attitude to minority groups. Following the announcements and progression of the tournament was difficult for someone without fluent Khmer, but the locals filling the banks of the Tonle Sap and perched from the edge of the Japanese Bridge cheered on their favourite teams.

The boats raced until sundown, the final competitors rowing at speed against the backdrop of orange light sinking over the skyline. With darkness upon us the spectacle of Ministerial boats could begin. Each Ministry of Government was represented with a two storey high floating barge. Tugged against the current the spetacular light shows included recreations of Angkor Wat, lions and nagas, and my favourite, the moving trains and wind turbines from the Ministry of Energy.

Lee and I spent some time on a friend's balcony that overlooked the river. The position enabled us to watch the festival from a much less crowded vantage point. Across the three days we also managed to venture to Riverside proper to be amongst the crowds, connected to the energy of a city coming together for the second biggest celebration of the year.

The view from our Water Festival vantage point! Photo © Mel Nutter.

The sense of community and shared experience created by the Khmer people is particularly noteworthy. Traffic during the three days was terrible, but we didn't witness a single cuss word despite the thousands of extra tuk tuks and motos, many of them puttering through the narrow streets carrying more people than they were ever designed to do. Likewise on the water front, 259 boats with a total of nearly 17,000 rowers all managing to organise themselves to train and race. Each team uniquely identified by coloured shirts, but all coming together to celebrate on the lifegiving river that is the Tonle Sap.

As we sat down for lunch on Riverside the day after the festival it seemed odd to see the pavement and waters edge clear once again. The area had been quickly swept clean but the joy and life of the festival remained. Families and couples collected in the shade under the trees and resumed their daily rituals of picnics, manicures, open fire cooking, and napping. Although the fireworks and bright lights were now gone, the connection that the people have to their river and city lives on everyday.


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