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Cambodia’s Incredible, Tumultuous Water Festival


Twice a year, every year, something quite incredible happens to the waters of the Tonle Sap river in Cambodia: they alter their course and begin flowing the other way. This is just one of the quirks of nature that make the Tonle Sap lake and river system one of the most fascinating in the world. It is also the reason that millions of Cambodians descend on Phnom Penh for a week-long celebration that rivals the vibrancy (and noise levels) of any festival anywhere in the world.

Before we start telling you why you should partake in the madness, a quick geography class. The Tonle Sap lake lies just south of the temples of Angkor, and flows into the Tonle Sap river and on into the mighty Mekong. The monsoon rains swell the waters of the Mekong to such an extent that it forces the Tonle Sap river in the other direction, pushing water towards the Tonle Sap lake thus dramatically increasing its size. After the rains the lake drains back into the Tonle Sap river and returns to the Mekong.

People racing in boats on a river

But enough of that. The Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk, marks the return of the water to the Mekong and is in honour of the river god, who will then provide fish and rice for the coming year. It is colourful, chaotic, competitive, crazy and very, very, Cambodian.

The country comes to a complete standstill, and villages and towns empty as the population flocks to the capital. Teams from all over Cambodia assemble to race dragon boats, cheered on by the thousands of spectators that line the riverbank. A win is a point of immense pride for a village and a huge amount of effort goes into building the boats and preparing the rowers.

Families set up tents and entire kitchens on the streets, with food stalls offering everything you could imagine – fluorescent candyfloss or a frog-on-a-stick-anyone? After dark Cambodian pop bands wow crowds of excited youngsters (not to everyone’s tastes but worth a watch just once), brightly lit floats traverse the river, and traffic grinds to a honking, beeping, gesticulating halt.

Lit float on river

Despite the complete mayhem the Water Festival is a chance to see Cambodia in full swing, and an opportunity to celebrate alongside the nation. If nothing else Phnom Penh will seem like a calm serene city once all the celebrations are over.

Make it happen.

The Water Festival usually takes place in November and can be easily included in a Cambodia itinerary – ask our local partners for help in planning a memorable trip. For more information on Cambodia, see our destination page. All trips created by our local travel companies are 100% bespoke and unique to you.

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