The Tonle Sap River and Mekong River are the backdrop for one of Southeast Asia’s largest yearly celebrations – Cambodia’s Water Festival.
Marking the end of the monsoon season, the Cambodian Water Festival of Bon Om Tuk is a centuries-old thanksgiving tradition.
The torrential rains of the monsoons cause a curious and unique natural phenomenon to occur. The waters of the Mekong swell, forcing the Tonle Sap River to reverse direction and flow upstream away from the sea.
The waters pour into Tonle Sap Lake, making it the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia for a few weeks and bringing with it an abundance of fish which have fed generation after generation of the Khmer people.
After the monsoon season is over, the flow of the Tonle Sap River switches directions once more and the waters of Tonle Sap Lake recede, leaving fertile soil enriched with minerals perfect for cultivating crops.
The Tonle Sap is the only river in the world to flow in both directions. It has been an artery pumping lifegiving resources into the heart of the old Khmer Empire and still does for modern-day Cambodia.
The Water Festival also serves as a celebration of military victories dating back to the times of Angkor and the Khmer Empire.
In particular the tradition of brightly coloured boats racing each other is a tribute to the legendary Khmer King Jayavarman VII who repelled foreign invaders from the kingdom in the 12th century.
Nowadays the races are for entertainment but in the time of Jayavarman VII they served as a military exercise for the mighty Khmer navy.
While back in the day the victors would be anointed as defenders of the Khmer Empire, and relied upon to protect the kingdom from threats, today’s boat racers put their pride on the line to see who is the fastest.
The festival is celebrated all over Cambodia, from rural areas to the bustling capital Phnom Penh. The banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers are thronged with people picnicking and enjoying the boat races.
The most popular place to celebrate the festivities is the famous Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. The riverbanks also serve as the perfect venue for hawkers, buskers and other enterprising tradesmen.
Firework displays light up the night skies, while electrically illuminated boats, known as Loy Pratip, float serenely downstream, their lights bouncing off the glassy waters.
A local delicacy, ambok, is traditionally eaten after midnight. Rice is fried while still in the husk and then pounded so the husks can be removed. The rice is mixed with bananas and coconut to create a sticky, sweet, midnight treat.
Prior to this the ceremony of Sampeah Preah Khae is observed, when salutations and offerings are given to the full moon in hopes for a good harvest.
A Tradition Preserved
The festival has not been without its share of tragedy. In fact it was banned for three years after almost 350 people died during a stampede on an overcrowded bridge in 2010.
Thankfully despite this, the tradition lives on and Cambodians and tourists alike once more line the riverbanks for three days in November to celebrate the gift of life that the unique reversal of the Tonle Sap brings. Long may it continue.