The Cambodian Water Festival, also known as Bon Om Touk, is a three-day celebration that takes place in late October or early November, often corresponding with the lunar Mid-Autumn Festival¹. It marks the end of the monsoon season and the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River¹², which is the world’s only river where water flows in both directions, depending on the seasonal monsoons?.
The festival attracts several million people each year, especially to the capital city of Phnom Penh and the ancient city of Angkor¹²³. Some of the activities that take place at the festival are:
- Boat racing: The main event of the festival is the Royal Boat Race, which involves hundreds of colorful dragon boats rowed by teams of monks, soldiers, or villagers. The boat racing tradition goes back to the 12th century, when the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII defeated an enemy fleet that had sacked the city of Angkor¹. The boat race also stems from the annual training exercises of the Cambodian navy on the Tonle Sap Lake². The boat race is a symbol of the strength and unity of the Cambodian people, as well as a tribute to the river goddess Ganga, who protects and provides the water for human and animal life¹.
- Lantern floating: After the boat race, large lanterns are released on the river as part of the Bondet Bratib ceremony, which means “lighting the moon” in Khmer. The lanterns are decorated with colorful lights and fireworks, and each one represents a branch of the Cambodian government. The lantern floating ceremony is a way of expressing gratitude and respect to the river goddess and the moon goddess, who are believed to bring good luck and prosperity¹².
- Og Ambok: On the second day of the festival, there is a special ceremony called Og Ambok, which means “flattened rice” in Khmer. This is a traditional rice dish that is made by frying the rice in its natural husks, then pounding it in a mortar until it becomes soft and fluffy. The rice is then mixed with banana and coconut meat, and eaten with a spoon. Og Ambok is a symbol of the abundant harvest that the river provides, and it is also a fun game that involves making each other laugh. Whoever laughs first has to eat Og Ambok with bananas until the end of the day².
- Music, dancing, and fireworks: The festival is also a time of joy and entertainment, with music concerts, traditional dancing, and fireworks throughout the night. The streets are filled with people wearing colorful clothes and enjoying the festive atmosphere. The music and dancing reflect the rich and diverse culture of Cambodia, and the fireworks are a way of celebrating the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the dry season²?.
The Cambodian Water Festival is a unique and spectacular event that showcases the history, culture, and spirituality of Cambodia. It is a time to honor the river and the moon, to thank the gods for their blessings, and to have fun with family and friends. If you ever have a chance to visit Cambodia during this festival, you will surely have an unforgettable experience..
Source: Conversation with Bing, 27/11/2023
(1) Bon Om Touk – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bon_Om_Touk.
(2) Bon Om Touk 2023, 2024 and 2025 in Cambodia – PublicHolidays.asia. https://publicholidays.asia/cambodia/bon-om-touk/.
(3) Bon Om Touk – The Cambodian Water Festival – Heritage Line. https://heritage-line.com/magazine/bon-om-touk-the-cambodian-water-festival/.
(4) Bon Om Touk – Water Festival in Cambodia | ASIA DMC. https://www.asiadmc.com/experiences/cambodia/bon-om-touk-water-festival-in-cambodia.
(5) Cambodia Water Festival – National Museum of Cambodia. https://nmc.gov.kh/index.php/cambodia-water-festival.
(6) Getty Images. https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/phnom-penh-celebrates-bon-om-touk-the-cambodian-water-news-photo/1191497881.