Eighty percent of Cambodian population live in rural areas and mostly work as farmers and rarely come to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. They do not have any business in the city since dealers would go and buy their agricultural products at the fields directly. There is also a lack affordable public transportation although highways from the capital city to provinces are everywhere. They are so poor that they cannot afford the transportation, food and accommodation in the city. Therefore, a trip to Phnom Penh would be one of the most remarkable experiences to many of rural Cambodians. In the month of November, there is a celebration called Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk, one of the biggest festivals in the Kingdom. It is probably the only occasion that tens of thousands people from other provinces would spend their hard-earned money to visit this capital city, where the festivity is held.
Back to the history of Water Festival, according to the Academic Buddhist Institute, during the Angkorian Era in 12th Century, Cambodia experienced the finest peace and prosperity, which is described as the golden age of the Kingdom under the leadership of King Jayavarman VII. One of the outstanding achievements of the King was his victory in defeating Champa, the neighboring country through the naval war. So the celebration of Water Festival is held to commemorate King Jayavarman VII and his naval army for their sacrifice and success in protecting Angkor Empire territory from the enemies. The ritual of Water Festival is also believed to be derived from the Sailing Battle Champion royally organized by King Jayavarman VII. As the King was famously known to excel in naval war, he ran the Water Festival annually in order to select the champions of sailing to prepare for the future battles with the invading neighbors. Since then, the festival has been celebrated until today with the honorable presence of the present King along with high ranking officials in front of Royal Palace. Aside from the commemoration of the King and the selection of the sailing champions, Water Festival is also held to give thanks to god of water for providing sufficient rains for crop cultivation and fresh water fish to feed Cambodian people.
Bun Om Tuk is a three-day festival that is held on full moon of November in front of Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The festival marks the beginning of the dry season after six months of rainy season in Cambodia, when heavy rains in the preceding months cause the hugely increased volume of Mekong River to force Tonle Sap River, a river that join the Mekong and Bassac Rivers at Tonle Chaktok Muk River in Phnom Penh and flow northwards to flood the Tonle Sap Lake back with vast quantities of fresh water and rich sediment. Then, in the mid of October, as the cool and dry winds blow from the north and the level of the Mekong River subsides, Tonle Sap Lake reversely flow back to Mekong and Bassac deltas. This phenomenon makes Tonle Sap Lake incredibly rich in fish and the farmlands around it filled with rich sediment. (Insight Guide)
For the three days of the event, boat race is held from morning till afternoon in Tonle Sap River in front of Royal Palace. Prior to that, monks, Buddha followers and villagers from different provinces try to raise funds to build colorful boats or have their existing boats redecorated, and send them and oarsmen to Phnom Penh to represent their villages or provinces. The boat racing itself is long enough to load up to 60 persons with one person dancing on the bow to the rhythm of the loud drums to liven up the oarsmen at the back who are energetically row the boat through the water. At the end of the competition on the third day, the winners are announced and honored with the King’s rewards including medals, cash and other sorts of goods. When they go back to their villages, they would be welcomed like war heroes for a short while. Villagers would not hesitate to slaughter their cows or pigs for the homecoming party.
When the sun goes down and the full moon emerges, fireworks begin to ignite, and the river is lit up by the illuminated boats floating slowly from one to the other side of the river, which is called Bondet Protip Ceremony. Each boat is specially designed with neon, flashy and colorful lights and artistic patterns, which represents state institutions like Ministries, Royal Government of Cambodia, and National Assembly and so on. Another important ceremony in Water Festival is Ork Ambok and Sampeah Preah Khe. Ork Ambok is the offering of Ambok, a special rice, banana and coconut to the moon. Sampeah Preah Khe means the salutation of the moon. The tradition is based on the ancient Khmer tale that says great Buddha was born on full moon as Sasa Bandith or wise man born in the form of a rabbit. Cambodian people believe that the dark spots on the moon form a rabbit shape which is Buddha. That’s why Cambodians prepare Ambok, banana and coconut to the moon as a thanksgiving for the birth of Buddha. Aside from traditional ceremonies, Phnom Penh during Water Festival is most crowded, exciting and lively. Outdoor concerts guested by superstars, fairs of cheap local products from different provinces and street shows are everywhere across the city, especially along the riverside areas, which give the carnival vibe to the city atmosphere.
Sadly, Water Festival in 2015 has been canceled due to the low level of the river and the drought that the Kingdom is facing. However, people can still celebrate it in their respective provinces with the help from the organizing authorities. The news of cancelation made many Cambodians, especially kids and teenagers, who have long waited and saved their money to visit Phnom Penh on the days of festival, deeply disappointed. All they can do is pray that there will not be any drought or other natural disasters that will halt the celebration of Bun Oum Tuk in the upcoming year.
By CHEAB Puthika, ASEAN Correspondent from Cambodia