When you’re traveling in Cambodia in November, there is a chance you will experience the water festival. It is to celebrate the end of the rainy season and the water is flowing up north from the Tonlé Sap lake. Discover what the water festival (Bon Om Thook in Khmer) is and where you can join the festivities.

phnom-penh water festival

Unique in the world: the flow of the water

To understand the water festival, it’s good to know a bit more about Tonlé Sap lake. The lake covers approximately 7.5% of Cambodia. It means ‘Big Lake’ in Khmer. In the dry season the size of the lake can reach up to 2590 square kilometers and in the rainy season it can even get up to 24.605 square kilometers. During the dry season, the water flows through the Tonle Sap river back into the Mekong river. This is visible in the Capital, Phnom Penh. During the wet season, the water level in the Mekong rises and the water flows back into Tonle Sap lake and so it becomes the biggest freshwater lake in southeast Asia.

Dragonboats in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

The change of the current is probably unique in the world and the water festival is here to celebrate. They will hold boat races on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The long dragon boats are beautiful and can sometimes hold 30 people. In the weeks before, they train a lot. Who doesn’t want to be the first to cross the finish?

Tip: accommodation will be booked faster than normal, so consider booking upfront.

water festival

Huge crowds, danger of oppression

Expect a big crowd in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for the water festival Bon Om Thook. People will visit the city to see the boat races. In 2010, on the last day of the festival it all went wrong on a bridge in Phnom Penh. People got oppressed and panic started. 347 people died and hundreds of people got injured. In 2014 the festival was celebrated again, but in 2015 it got cancelled again because of the low water level. It seems like the water festival will be celebrated again this year and it’s scheduled for 13, 14 and 15 November.

Tip: Watch out for pickpockets. Be cautious and keep an eye on your personal belongings.

Festivities in the villages

The festival falls with full moon of the Buddhist calendar Kadeuk. Khmer believe the full moon is a sign for a good harvest. In the rural areas, villagers will gather and show their gratitude to the moon. Festive and traditional meals are prepared. Candles and incent are lit and sacrifices are being made.
The priest drips the candle wax on banana leave, which is spread under de candles. The shape of the wax on the leaves are believed to be a forecast of the harvest of next year.

Festivities in Phnom Penh

It won’t come as a surprise Phnom Penh is transformed into a big festival area during Bon Om Thook. You will find concerts, stalls, carnival and loads of picnic areas. Official building will be decorated colorful and when the sun sets, the Royal Palace will be illuminated with colored lights. And the icing on the cake, fireworks to close the festival.

fireworks phnom-penh

The water festival, unique happening in Cambodia

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