A girls rowing team practices the day before the start of the Si

Cambodia Water Festival – How to Celebrate Bon Om Touk with the Locals

The Cambodia Water Festival or Bon Om Touk began today with boat races in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, in Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, and in other provincial cities around the country. Here’s how to celebrate Bon Om Touk with the locals.

The Cambodia Water Festival or Bon Om Touk, taking place from 2-4 November 2017, is one of the most important Cambodian holidays of the year. Like Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival, the Water Festival offers a wonderful insight into local life.

Whether you join the Cambodia Water Festival celebrations in Phnom Penh or here for the Siem Reap Water Festival, divide your time between Phnom Penh’s riverside promenade of Sisowath Quay or Siem Reap‘s riverside, and the markets, street food stalls, pop-up beer bars, and live music concerts. You’ll not only soak up the festive atmosphere but you’ll gain an insight into everyday life.

Here in Siem Reap, vendors began setting up street food stalls and pop-up beer bars for the Siem Reap Water Festival a few days ago. Last night, alfresco drinking spots were crammed with locals downing beers and dancing to live bands performing on the banks of the Siem Reap River, while the plastic chairs and tables at pop-up eateries in the parks and gardens were already packed with people. And Bon Om Touk hadn’t even started yet!

To get a feel for the event, click through to this post for images from the Siem Reap Water Festival.

As Cambodia residents, we wouldn’t miss Bon Om Touk for the world. As I write this, Terence is down on the riverbank photographing the boat races that began this afternoon. If you’re in Siem Reap or have just arrived, make a beeline for the riverside area of the Old French Quarter or the Wat Bo neighbourhood on the opposite bank.

If you’re not here now, but are planning to visit Cambodia next year, do try to time your holiday to coincide with the Cambodia Water Festival, whether in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or one of the smaller provincial cities, from where we’ll report on Bon Om Touk in 2018.

The Cambodia Water Festival

The Cambodia Water Festival occurs on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, which generally falls in November. In 2017, both the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap water festivals will take place from 2-4 November, with boat races on the Siem Reap River and markets, street food stalls, live music, and traditional performances in the Royal Gardens and riverside park.

The Cambodia Water Festival has historically marked the end of the monsoon period and a bountiful rice season, the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the beginning of the fishing season, with boats races, water rituals, and celebrations.

The Cambodia Water Festival is celebrated across the country, however, when planning your trip, it’s worth keeping in mind that water festivals were cancelled nationwide due to the October 2012 death of King Norodom Sihanouk and subsequent mourning period, while the Phnom Penh Water Festival didn’t return until 2014 following the cancellation of three festivals out of respect for 353 people who tragically died in a stampede on Koh Pich bridge during the 2010 Water Festival.

In Phnom Penh the boat races traditionally take place on the Tonle Sap, not far from where it meets the Mekong River, with people watching the heats from the Sisowath Quay waterfront. Two million tourists descended upon the capital for the 2014 Phnom Penh festival, although in early November Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the cancellation of the 2015 Water Festival in Phnom Penh due to low water levels after a 7-month drought in Cambodia.

Cambodia Water Festival – How to Celebrate Bon Om Tuk with the Locals

  • Make a beeline for the riverside – whether you’re in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap or a provincial capital, that’s where you’ll get to best enjoy the action on the water during the two days of boat races.
  • Wear a big floppy hat or Cambodian krama – Cambodians cover up when they’re in the sun, so you’ll be out of place if you’re not covered too, and locals will appreciate your adoption of the local style.
  • Take a picnic basket – there’ll be no shortage of Cambodian street food specialties you can buy, and you’ll find local families very willing to share their picnic mats and whatever they’re feasting on. But take a picnic basket filled with snacks, cold beers/drinks and sweets, and you’ll be warmly welcomed as locals and will make friends for life once you start sharing them around – just as the locals do.
  • If you like your festivals to be mellow affairs, you’ll probably be satisfied with kicking back with the locals on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh and the riverbank parks in Siem Reap watching the boat races, engaging with locals, and feasting on street food.
  • If you like to party, after the boat races you’ll want to head to Pub Street and the surrounding streets and lanes in Siem Reap to drink and dance with the younger Cambodians. While we’re not fans of touristy Pub Street for most of the year, we love it during the Cambodia Water Festival when the locals reclaim their streets. However, be prepared to get wet and covered in white talcum powder.

Our Tips for the Cambodia Water Festival

  • The 2017 Cambodia Water Festival will be celebrated in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap from 2-4 November 2017.
  • Book your Phnom Penh accommodation and Siem Reap hotels as soon as you can. It’s been predicted that the Cambodia Water Festival will become a major event on the country’s tourism calendar and will attract increasingly more tourists every year, so do plan ahead.
  • Having said that, risk the urge to plan too far ahead of time – the schedules for the last few water festivals in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap were released just before the holiday, so don’t expect to get comprehensive details until close to the festival.
  • Be prepared to go with the flow (sic) – do be flexible: this is Cambodia and things change.
  • Monitor Cambodia’s weather ahead of your trip – while the festival takes place on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk in October/November, which has historically marked the end of the rainy season, climate change means that there could still be a chance of rain. If that’s the case, see our tips for things to do in Siem Reap when it rains.
  • Check out our guides to Cambodian foodlocal street food specialtiesbreakfast in Siem ReapSiem Reap’s best markets, the best Siem Reap Cambodian restaurants and eating out in Phnom Penh.
  • Be respectful and dress conservatively. While the warm weather might tempt you to wear very little at all, you’ll meet a lot more locals if you dress modestly. We suggest loose cottons and linens, a broad brimmed hat, and sunblock, and strongly recommend that you drink lots of water frequently.
  • Read our comprehensive Guide to Responsible Travel in Cambodia to ensure you’re travelling ethically, sustainably and responsibly.
  • Need suggestions for other activities and excursions, see our Weekend in Phnom Penh Itinerary, and our guides to things to do in Siem Reap and the best Phnom Penh day trips.
  • Travelling to Cambodia with kids? Don’t miss our Guide to Siem Reap for Families and, whatever you do, make sure you see the Phare Cambodian Circus (laugh-out-loud funny, talented performers only; no animals!)
  • If you’re considering a trip for the 2018 Cambodia Water Festivals in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, due to take place from 22-24 November 2018, do check Tourism Cambodia’s website a month before you travel to make sure the festival is still on. It’s been cancelled in previous years due to widespread monsoonal flooding.
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