Scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival

We thought we’d share some more scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival, or Bon Om Tuk in Khmer, which took place here in Siem Reap in Cambodia in November 2014.

Click on the arrows to scroll through the gallery above for more of Terence’s colourful images from the Siem Reap Water Festival.

In 2016, the Siem Reap Water Festival is due to take place from 13-15 November.

The highlight of the three-day Water Festival is the first two days of boat races. Teams consist of people representing their village, place of work (there’s a lot of participation from staff from hotels and government departments), and even the army. Some teams practice for days, others for weeks.

The riverbanks get packed with people, mostly locals, but there are some foreign tourists too. Some of the spectators are there to support particular teams – villagers who have travelled a long distance camp out on the river bank, stringing hammocks up and spreading matting out to prepare food and eat, and the crowd arranges themselves around the happy campers to watch the races.

It was great to see the spectators getting especially excited during the women’s races and it wasn’t only the women watching who were jumping up and down. From my vantage point I noticed some male members in the VIP seats across the water leap to their feet each time they rowed by.

Whether male or female, the rowers take the races seriously, as you can see from the images – especially the teams in orange and yellow t-shirts, captured above, who always appeared to have looks of intense concentration apparent on their faces.

Even in the blistering heat of the mid afternoon, the crowds didn’t diminish. They just donned their hats (check out the wide array of styles) or improvised, protecting their heads with kramas (a traditional Cambodian cotton checked scarf), t-shirts, and hand towels.

Aside from the boat races, there were bokator demonstrations to watch – bokator is a centuries-old martial art that dates back to the Khmer Empire. I just love Terence’s shot above of the bokator fighter with the intricate tattoos on his chest. (We’ve got a story coming soon on bokator).

People also enjoy being able to stroll the riverside. Normally the leafy river roads are busy with vehicles so it’s fabulous to see the streets traffic-free and people happily wandering along the waterfront. There are plenty of stalls selling all sorts of things, from cheap clothes to farming machinery, but most people seem content just to amble.

Festival goers also appear to relish the opportunity to sit around with family and friends and eat and drink and watch the live music. Cambodian street food is in abundance during the Water Festival, with stalls lining the riverside and filling the parks, as we wrote about and showed you in the photo gallery in the street food post.

The highlight of the event for us, however, and for many spectators I expect, is after the boat race finals when all of the crews row down the river to the VIP tent to hear the victorious teams announced. The colourful spectacle aside, it’s an emotional scene.

Every crew rows with great pride, relishing their victories, raising their oars in the air and shouting out the cries of triumphant warriors. And each rower deserves their moment, not only the winners. They all demonstrate strength, stamina, skill, and team spirit, in a way that’s never aggressive and always good-natured. It’s a special moment. To experience this is reason enough to attend the Siem Reap Water Festival.



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  1. Dale

    The whole day looks and sounds amazing from your description. Full of appreciation for life no matter if you want to be on the water, in it, or just walking alongside it eating local street food 🙂


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