Cambodian Water Festival

10-12 November 2000

Click here for photographs from the Water Festival

Click here for follow-up notes after the Water Festival

The Water Festival in Cambodia takes place each year in October or November, at the time of the full moon, and is the most extravagant and exuberant festival in the Khmer calendar, outdoing even the new year celebrations.

Boats on the Tonle Sap RiverStarting on the day of the full moon in late October or early November, up to a million people from all walks of life and from all over the country flock to the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Phnom Penh to watch traditional boats racing on a huge scale.  This year more than 400 of the brightly colored boats with over 2,500 paddlers battled it out for top honors.  The boat racing dates back to ancient times marking the strength of the powerful Khmer marine forces during the Khmer empire.

During the day, the boats race in pairs along a kilometer-long course, and then in the evening brightly decorated floats cruise along the river prior to and during the nightly fireworks displays.

There is often a parallel festival at Angkor Wat and although it is smaller in scale it is just as impressive due to the backdrop of Angkor Wat.

The festival marks the changing of the flow of the Tonle Sap River and is also seen as thanksgiving to the Mekong River for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish.  It is at this time when the river flow reverts to its normal down-stream direction.  In a remarkable phenomenon, the Tonle Sap River earlier reverses its course as the rainy season progresses, with the river flowing "upstream" to Tonle Sap Lake. Then as the rainy season tapers off, the river changes direction once again as the swollen Tonle Sap Lake begins to empty back into the Mekong River, leaving behind vast quantities of fish.

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Follow-up Notes after the Water Festival

Notes about the Water Festival

  • The big races ended in Phnom Penh on Sunday, but racing then continued in the provinces as the boats returned home and their hometown crews raced each other for local bragging rights.
  • I was wondering how the 400-odd boats actually got to Phnom Penh. Some of them could travel the streams and rivers to get to the capital, but other areas of the country are fairly well removed from any big streams connecting with the four major rivers. And the boats are too big to be transported by anything other than a railroad car--only the railroads have never been rebuilt here after all the warring. I got a partial answer to the transportation question when--as we traveled to a small Vietnamese village along the Mekong River--we passed a boat racing crew, about 30 young men, walking their boat home, rolling it on specially built sets of bicycle wheels which they placed every twenty feet under the 60-70 foot boat.
  • Racing boat stored in a Buddhist watMost of the boats are stored in local Buddhist monasteries (wats) because those are the only places with enough flat land and space to store a very long boat!
  • The population of Phnom Penh almost doubled during this year's water festival as people poured into the capital from the provinces. In a simple, under-developed agricultural country like Cambodia, national boat races are a big occasion, and hundreds of thousands of people leave the villages for the big city to cheer for their local team. It is the opposite of the Khmer New Year, the other big annual festival, when nothing is happening in Phnom Penh, and all the people here go back to their home villages in the provinces.
  • Many government officials own their own boats which are raced in the Water Festival. It's a way of demonstrating their closeness to the people.
  • The crowds on the streets the afternoons and nights of the three-day festival have to be seen to be believed. And it is pure chaos with motordupes going every-which direction through the throngs along with occasional cars and trucks jammed with people in the back. It is amazing more people aren't killed during the festival. There are many police and soldiers standing in the middle of the streets full of people, but they can't do anything and have no plan for doing anything. There is no crowd or traffic control. It is a perfect setting for an accidental riot caused by a traffic accident or fight. Several years ago 10-15 people were electrocuted as the crowds wore away the insulation of ordinary electric wires laid across the street by vendors, and then as the first people were electrocuted others piled into them and fell on top of them.
  • The crowds can be basically unruly, too. Our young women lay missioners, in the midst of the crowds down at the waterfront, complained that they were repeatedly jostled and touched and groped. Foreign women often complain of that in a culture where white skin women, especially with light-colored hair, are a real curiosity. Usually people just want to touch their arms in a non-threatening way, but in a huge crowd like that the dynamics change dramatically.

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