The Cambodian Water Festival – Tonle Sap Flow Reversal

Image of Fireworks at Water Festival Cambodia

The Cambodian Water Festival or Bon Om Touk in Khmer is a Cambodian festival celebrated this year on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of November 2017. It marks a uniquely worldwide phenomenon as the Tonle Sap River flow reverses.

Water Festivities

Virtually every Cambodian town and province join in with the festival but by far the biggest festivities and boat races take place in Phnom Penh.

Sisowath Quay or Phnom Penh’s Riverside is the place to be where most of the boat racing and celebrations take place. For three national days of holiday, people from every province join the city’s residents to celebrate by day and night!

The festival also commemorates the end of Cambodia’s rainy season, the reversal of flow in the Tonle Sap River, the Moon Festival on the last night of the festival in addition to boat races and music concerts.

The event is the only Cambodian holiday where people come to the city from the province rather than the other way round and attracts several million people each year.

For most Cambodians, the annual Water Festival competes with Khmer New Year for being the most important holiday in the calendar. The Water and subsequent Moon Festival is the official start of the fishing and harvest season.

The boat races on the Tonle Sap River and the surrounding carnival atmosphere attracts millions of people from all over the country.

However, there are many smaller water festivals around the country including Angkor Wat but for the full experience, you’ll have to go to Phnom Penh.

There are more than 400 boats that take part in the Water Festival which will arrive in the city with travelling support from their local town or province. Many of the spectators from the provinces will stay over in the city and enjoy the boat racing, fireworks and concerts.

River Reversal

The Cambodian Water Festival also marks a truly unique natural phenomenon – the Tonle Sap river reverses the flow of its current. It is the only waterway in the world which flows in opposite directions at different times of the year.

The reason behind this natural phenomenon is because the Tonle Sap lake is a vast expanse of water (Asia’s largest freshwater lake) which was once an arm open to the sea.

The lake is fed by the Mekong river and the Tonle Sap river. From November to May, the Tonle Sap river runs into the Mekong just like any other river in Cambodia or the world.

The arrival of the season’s rains brings a build-up of water in the mainstream current that excess pours into the Tonle Sap river, forcing it to change direction and flow back into the Tonle Sap lake.

Full Moon Festival

The Festival also coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. The Cambodians believe that the full moon is good luck which promises a plentiful harvest.

People from all over the country gather on the last night of the festival to give offerings to the moon. Special food is prepared for this occasion – fruits, vegetables and fish amok, a unique Cambodian dish.

Candles are lit, incense burnt and offerings made to the Buddha, deities and of course the moon itself. The chief monk of the area lights the candles and as it drips on the banana leaves, predictions are made. It is said that the shape of the melted wax on the banana leaves predicts the state of all future harvests for the year.

Carnival in Phnom Penh

The city of Phnom Penh takes on a carnival atmosphere during this period. Many open-air live concerts are held, food stalls selling a huge variety of local produce are set up in parks in addition to many fairground rides and attractions.

There are many attractive lights, buntings and banners that cover the Riverside promenade and buildings. Brilliant fireworks illuminate the night sky and flotillas as they glide gracefully down the river.

Any visitor to Cambodia at this time of year should definitely be in Phnom Penh for Cambodia’s version of the Mardis Gras.

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