The annual three-day Water Festival, or Bonn Om Toeuk in Khmer, is one of the most important holidays in Cambodia. Millions of Cambodians gather in Phnom Penh for boat races, water parades, picnics, shopping, fireworks, and concerts.
The Water Festival marks the end of the rainy season and is held during the full moon in the Buddhist month of Kadeuk (usually October or November). As the rainy season ends, the Tonle Sap River reverses directions. It is the only major river in the world to do so and this festival also marks that change.
When I was here in October (2015), the government cancelled the Water Festival in Phnom Penh. The official reason for the cancellation was drought but many feel that the government was afraid of opposition rallies.
I was eager to catch the festivities this year. A friend suggested that I perch in one of the Riverfront rooftop bars the day before so I could watch the boats practice but I had to work.
Cambodians rise early to enjoy all the festivities. Kids play in the city parks while their families picnic. The city turns on all the fountains. As I walked to the riverfront, kids played in the spray of this fountain on Sihanouk Boulevard.
On the first day of the water festival, I watched some from the river bank near the palace and then I watched the rest from the Blue Pumpkin. The Blue Pumpkin provides a nice view, food, and air conditioning.
I chatted with some young Cambodians about the water festival. I asked them if they were routing for any particular team. None of them had a favorite. They just wanted to watch the spectacle. One thing I love about Cambodians is how incredibly friendly they are.
The girl in the photo above told me that the teams represent pagodas (Buddhist temples) from around Cambodia. Companies or wealthy Cambodians sponsor the boats and pay for food and lodging for the contestants during the festival. She wanted a photo with me so I asked her friend to take one on my phone too.
The Blue Pumpkin is one of the popular places for Cambodians to watch the spectacle. Families reserve tables near the windows so I took a spot on the couches along the wall. This young girl seemed mesmerized by all the activity outside.
Police block off many of the main roads in Phnom Penh including the River Front, Sihanouk Blvd, Pasteur (Street 51), and parts of Norodom Blvd. This creates headaches for traffic but an unusually walkable city for pedestrians.
Vendors in carts line the streets and sidewalks to sell food, clothing, souvenirs and lots of children’s toys. The city also decorates the trees with colorful lights.
At night, government ministries sponsor floats in a beautiful water parade as fireworks go off overhead. The video below of the fireworks ends with the floats.
Police close the streets until midnight during the festival but they do let some through. The later it gets, the more drunk some people get so as it gets later, you need to be more careful. A drunk motodop driver who didn’t take “no” for an answer followed me until I said I’d call the police. Other than that small annoyance, I enjoyed the festive, relaxed atmosphere of Phnom Penh’s water festival.