Water Festival, beyond the meaning as Khmer thanksgiving ceremony, historically refers to the military training for battle. To protect the empire from enemies, Khmer King in an ancient time frequently involved in any battles by naval forces. The festival was first celebrated in the reign of Preah Bat Jayvarman VII during Angkor Period of the 12th century to find the sailing champion for the battle. More evidence relevant to this can definitely be found on etchings at the walls of two Cambodian temples, either Bayon or Banteay Chhmar.
Having been carried on till this day despite the existence of up and down moments along the way, the Water Festival is no longer part of army training for the battle due to the current peace situation throughout the region. Instead, Khmers annually celebrate it with the purposes of appeasing river divinities, welcoming the arrival of fishing season, and celebrating the rebirth of Cambodia, which has gone undergone the monsoon rains.
Also known as Bon Om Touk in Khmer language, the festival lasts for three days and most of the time falls on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, regarded as November in the solar calendar. Traditionally, the full moon is believed to bring good luck, which leads to the fruitful rice crop harvest, while the unique natural phenomenon – the changing direction of the Tonle Sap river in Cambodia – normally exists here in the eleventh month, November.
In villages and provinces, local people spend a year prior to the celebration to spruce up boats, which are often sponsored by government officials and even individual donors, and practice their racing skill on nearby water. Usually each boat is manned by 30 to 40 rowers, both men and women, with a dancer on the bow gracefully performing to the drum rhythm as an encouragement for the swift movement of the boats. And as the event approaches, the rowers make the long trek to the capital for the competition against other boats and show their racing skill as well as stamina in front of the king.
Owing to the fact that the biggest celebration primarily takes place along Tonle Sap River in front of the Royal Palaces, Phnom Penh residents and peasants from any province, gather and throng into the capital city to take part in the event during this national holiday, which takes place across most provinces nationwide. Foreign tourists staying in the capital within that period can also enjoy the flow of fun activities being held part of the ceremony.
The boat races attract full of people coming to support the rowers. The visitors initially search for a cozy spot along the riverbank to sit, then enjoy any meal and drink during the festival. Generally, the racing results are announced on the third-day evening. Many rewards, including beverage, money, rice, so on and so forth, will be handed to the winners. Other prizes received as donations will be given to all the participants in the contest.
In addition to the boat racing, three other ceremonies, namely Loy Pratip, Sampeas Preah Khe, and Auk Ambok, are also celebrated to offer thanks to the land and water. As the late evening arrives, the traditional pillar, Loy Pratip, starts to take place. Numerous illuminated boats, which chiefly represent Cambodian ministries, government services as well as state institutions, float slowly on the surface of the river. Each of them, by the colorful decoration equipped with thousands of flashy neon lights, possesses fancy patterns. During their smooth movements on the river, impressive firework displays begin, and the crowds joyfully clap their both hands and cheer.
As the night falls on the last day of the festival, Sampeah Preah Khae, in English denoted as the Moon Salutation, is celebrated. In front of each house, local people pray for a bountiful yield for the following year, and there is an array of offerings in the form of incense, food, and beverage set up with an aim of praying for luck, prosperity, happiness, etc. November’s full moon is actually a good sign of the coming harvest. Afterward, at midnight, people traditionally gather at temples for the celebration of the third event, Auk Ambok.
Auk Ambok, which is made up of ingredients such as rice in its natural husks, banana and coconut meat, is the last traditional delicacy served during the ceremony. Before being beaten by a giant pestle till soft, the rice is initially fried in the husk, which are then removed. Afterward, the rice is mixed with banana and coconut for flavor. Normally, it is eaten after midnight when revelers are at the pagodas for harvest moon celebration.
All in all, the Water Festival is one of the biggest events in Cambodia. Unlike usual, most districts of the city, particularly the Royal Palaces, come to life during the celebration. Through the decoration of colorful and neon lights plus the show of brilliant fireworks with diverse colors and shapes in the dark sky, the capital is completely transformed. And while a majority of people wholeheartedly indulge themselves with the festivities, the rest can spend time to reunion with their relatives at home. It is, anyway, the special occasion for family gathering either.