Bon Om Touk, or the Cambodian Water Festival, is undeniably the country’s largest and most celebrated holiday of the year. In 2021, three days of jubilation take place on 18-20 November.
The Tonle Sap is the world’s only river where water flows in both directions, depending on the seasonal monsoons. Annually, during the first full moon following the rainy season (late October to November), towns all along the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake and River commemorate the reversal of the current as it flows back into the mighty Mekong River, leaving behind rich sediments and aiding the farmers all along its shores.
But no Bon Om Touk celebration in Cambodia compares to the grand spectacle of Phnom Penh – where millions flock from the countryside to partake in the festivities, which includes eating Ak Ambok (a special holiday rice treat mixed with banana and coconut), witnessing the evening fireworks, and most importantly, spectating the famed boat races along the city’s Sisowath Quay.
The boat races date all the way back to the reign of the 12th-century Khmer king, the magnificent Jayavarman VII (the namesake of one of our lower Mekong river vessels), who commissioned an inland navy to chase down invaders from the neighboring Cham empire.
Weeks before the water festival, towns and villages from all over Cambodia prepare their Pirogue longboats for the special occasion – over 400 enter the competition each year.
While the boats are being readied onshore, thousands of participants practice rowing on the Tonle, as observed by our passengers aboard Heritage Line The Jahan (in 2019)!