When is the Cambodian Water Festival?

Cambodia’s Water Festival takes place around October — November every year and officially marks the end of the rainy season. Here are the upcoming dates for the Cambodian Water Festival 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Year Cambodian Water Festival Dates
2018 21 – 23 Nov
2019 10 – 12 Nov
2020 30 Oct – 01 Nov
2021 18 – 20 Nov

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What is the Cambodian Water Festival?

The Cambodian Water Festival is a major holiday in Cambodia.

Known in Khmer as Bon Om Touk, it’s a three-day boat racing festival observed on the full moon of Kadeuk. This particular moon is the Harvest Moon. Many Cambodian holidays coincide with moon cycles because the Buddhist calendar is lunisolar.

The Cambodian Water Festival is a celebration of the unique flow reversal between the Mekong and the Tonle Sap Rivers. During the monsoons (rainy season), the Tonle Sap River overflows with water and is forced to empty upstream into the Tonle Sap Lake.

At the end of the rainy season, the lake water flows in reverse towards the sea providing the region with plenty of fish and fertile farming land.

Bon Om Touk ushers in the fishing season and the next years rice harvest.

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Some Bon Om Touk History

According to historians, the Cambodian Water Festival began during the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. At this time many battles were fought and won on the Mekong and Tonle Sap lakes. The Angkorian Empire was renowned for its might on the water facing off against rivals like the Chams and Siams.

The festival was a way to please and entertain the water gods helping to secure bountiful rice harvests in the coming season.

Ancient Angkorian Kings also used the water festival to show off military might and prepare powerful navies for battle. It was the perfect time to check the training and fighting skills of their naval warriors.

During our temple tours, you’ll see ancient carvings depicting boat races and naval battles. The boats we currently use during the festival still match the ones used hundreds of years ago!

What Happens During the Cambodian Water Festival?

As one the largest and most popular festivals in the kingdom, most towns and villages seek to participate by building boats to race. Young men train incredibly hard to honorably represent their town at the events held in the capital or Siem Reap.

The race boats are painted and decorated in the style of each village. Each boat is manned with around twenty to thirty rowers and one leader. The leader is always at the head of the boat controlling the speed and rhythm of his crew.

It’s incredible to watch the strong, young men row with all their might to the beat of war drums.

In this video, you can see just how hard they’re working to get their boats moving that fast. Also, notice how each boat has its own unique style. There will generally be one boat on the water not participating in the races. Instead, those aboard play traditional music and beat drums to motivate the racers to row faster to victory!

How to celebrate the Cambodian Water Festival?

Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are the places to be during the Cambodian Water Festival. Count yourself lucky to participate in the colorful, loud, and super fun festivities!

At Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay, often over four million people show up to watch the amazing boat races. The riverbank is a hot spot of activities with food vendors, musicians, and concerts.

This is the best place for you to watch the boat races and the rest of the celebrations. Khmer families will pick a spot, layout mats with food and drinks, and cheer for their favorite teams.

Siem Reap is completely packed as well. The two roads along the river are jam-packed with stalls selling everything from crispy insects and delicious Khmer treats to silk products and cellphones.

People crowd up on the bridges and along the banks of Siem Reap River to cheer on the boat races. There are often other fun events happening as well so you’ll have to keep an eye out.

If you’re in Cambodia during the water festival, have fun exploring the many street food stands and other stalls near the river. Make friends and hang out with locals, cheer for your favorite colorful race boat, and seize any chance you get to meet some racers. Fill up with tasty Khmer food in the evening and enjoy drinks under firework displays.

The three-day Cambodian Water Festival is as much as a must-see as the Temples of Angkor.

Will you be in the Kingdom for the celebrations? Let us know in the comments!

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