Browse these colourful scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk in Khmer, which marks the end of monsoon and reversal of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) with boat races, water rituals, and celebrations. Be warned: they could inspire you to book flights to Cambodia for the next water festival.
Click on the arrows either side of the image above to scroll through the gallery of Terence’s stunning photographs of scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk in the Khmer language, held in Siem Reap in Cambodia.
You can read more in this post on the Siem Reap Water Festival about the long history of the festival, the traditions and ceremonies, what to expect, and our tips on how best to experience Bon Om Tuk with the locals.
Updated: November 2017
Scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival – Bon Om Tuk in Images
The highlight of the three-day Siem Reap Water Festival is the first two days of boat races. Teams consist of people representing their village, community or place of work. There’s a lot of participation from staff working at hotels, for government departments, and even in the army. Some teams practice for days, others for weeks.
The Siem Reap riverbanks get packed with spectators, mostly locals and Cambodian tourists, but there are increasingly foreign visitors too.
Some of the observers are here 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 drink together, and the crowd arranges itself around the happy campers to watch the races.
It was wonderful 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 spotted a number of 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 scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival, above – especially the images of the teams in orange and yellow t-shirts, who always appeared to have looks of intense concentration on their faces.
Even in the blistering heat of the mid afternoon, the crowds didn’t diminish. They just donned thats (check out the wide array of styles in the pictures, above) 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 demonstrations of bokator, a centuries-old martial art that dates back to the Khmer Empire. I just love Terence’s shot in the gallery of the bokator fighter with intricate tattoos on his chest. We’ve got a story coming on bokator, but the tattoos offer strength and protection.
As evident in the scenes from the Siem Reap Water Festival, above, people also enjoy the opportunity the holiday provides to be able to stroll the car-free riverside streets. Normally the leafy river roads are busy with vehicles so it’s fabulous to see the streets free of traffic and people happily wandering along the waterfront.
There are plenty of stalls to browse selling all sorts of (sometimes strange) things, from cheap clothes and kids toys to tractors and other 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 on stages and the grassy riverbanks.
Cambodian street food is also in abundance during the Siem Reap Water Festival, with stalls lining the riverside and filling the parks. Click through to the link to drool over the array of street food on offer.
The highlight of the event for us was the final hour. After the last boat all of the crews rowed down the river together to the VIP tent to hear the victorious teams announced. It was an emotional scene and a colourful spectacle made all the more atmospheric by the setting sun.
Every crew rowed with great pride, relishing their victories, however, small, raising their oars in the air and shouting out the cries of triumphant warriors. Each rower deserved their moment, not only the winners. They all demonstrated strength, stamina, skill, and team spirit, in a way that was never aggressive and always good-natured.
It felt special to share the moment with them. To experience this is reason enough to attend the Siem Reap Water Festival.
Updated: November 2017