Water and Moon: Cambodia’s Biggest Festival
Cambodia, a nation with a rich history formed by multiple cultures: from the early Indianised states of Funan and Chenla, to 13th century Sri Lankan missionaries spreading the teachings of Theravada Buddhism, through to the God-kings of the Khmer Empire, and finally to the French colony of Indochina and the Vietnamese occupation in the final decades of the twentieth century. The prodigious diversity of Cambodia’s history and people, as with all human cultures, is best witnessed when one puts down the history books and joins in with the lived experiences of the native people through participation in and appreciation of their traditional festivals.
Much like their Southeast Asian neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, it is home to a dazzling array of colourful and dynamic celebrations with a distinct cultural identity that are waiting to be unearthed by the uninitiated traveller.
The Boat Races
Perhaps the most striking of these annual festivals is the Cambodian Water Festival or Bon Om Touk, which translates literally as ‘Boat Racing Festival’. Taking place over a period of three days usually in November, depending on when the waters of the Mekong River reverse into the Tonlé Sap Lake, this popular festival ushers in the beginning of the fishing season and is a celebrated national holiday throughout Cambodia.
Throngs of Cambodians from across the country flock to the river banks of the capital Phnom Penh as schools are closed and workers down their tools. Excited celebrants hurry to find a spot along the river from where they can eat and drink with friends whilst still witnessing the grand boat races.