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Bon Om Tuk Water Festival

December 15, 2004

by Jim CA2

Every year millions of Cambodians descend on Phnom Penh for the Bon Om Tuk Water Festival. The festival marks the end of the rainy season and occurs in November for three nights during the full moon. Some also say that the festival also marks the changing of directions of the Tonle Sap, however I think this is a western addition as the Tonle Sap river changes directions well before the festival and this year it was a couple of months earlier. In fact this year I was a little concerned that there would be any water to race in as the water level dropped to levels lower than last years event.

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Villages send teams with their dragon boats to compete during the 3 day event. Racing takes place from around noon till sunset and a pair of boats one right after another race from the Japanese Friendship Bridge down stream to the finish line infront of the Royal Palace. Newly appointed King Sihamoni presided over the event. Over 350 boats participate annually. This was my third year of sponsoring a boat that comes from a village in Kampong Cham province where one of my staff also comes from. This year our team was undefeated for their 4 races. First place teams (of which there were many) walked away with a 100 dollar prize. Second and Third took 75 and 50 dollars respectively. It isn’t a lot considering many boats have as much as 70 rowers. My boat however did much better as we were generous with each win. There was a boat from Mondulkiri Province that had 100 rowers and they were dressed in traditional tribal attire. Most boats have racers in T-shirts with their logos. The last two years I could never spot our boat from the shore so this year they were the only team in yellow and dark blue hats. I told the team that now I can watch you win and know who you are….and conversely if you lose, everyone will know who you are!

Sisowath Quay and the neighboring streets are closed off to vehicle traffic and anyone would be a fool even to try to take a moto into the crowds of pedestrians that are walking in both directions for hours along the riverfront. Vendors set up stands to sell anything from beverages and food, to jewelry and magic potions made from bones, herbs and other secret ingredients. In the evening the crowds are treated to 3 nights of fireworks as well as beautifully illuminated large floats that ciculate up and down river. If you decide to brave the crowds make sure you watch your wallet. As with crowded areas all over the world, opportunist will work in teams and can disappear into the crowd despite your awareness of your belongings getting stolen.

This years event was slightly marred with periodic downpours that sunk over thirty boats. Rescue teams were busy trying to clear the boats as the following pair of boats advanced on them.

If you decide to visit Phnom Penh during the water festival, book riverfront hotels early. Plan on arriving a day before the event or you will find yourself carrying luggage a couple of blocks through crowded streets. And plan on staying through the end of the event. Jim CA2



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