Siem Reap Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk, the Cambodia Water Festival, traditionally marks the end of the monsoon period and rice season, the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), and the start of the fishing season, with boat races, water rituals and traditional ceremonies, such as the moon worship and lighting of the lanterns, fireworks, and plenty of street food and festivities.
The Siem Reap Water Festival has been extended this year! Since Cambodia’s 2023 Siem Reap Water Festival details were announced last month by Siem Reap’s City Hall, the Siem Reap Provincial Administration has announced the re-named Royal Water Festival, ‘the festival of floating lanterns and worshiping the moon’, and Ok Ambok (a traditional ritual of making a flattened rice specialty) will take place over 4 days from Saturday 25 to Tuesday 28 November 2023.
WATER FESTIVAL EVENTS: The boat races, boat rides and lantern floating will happen on the Siem Reap River, and on the river banks and riverside roads there’ll be street food stalls, musical performances, traditional games, Bokator (traditional Unesco-listed Khmer boxing), and concerts between the two main city bridges. Festival-goers will also have an opportunity to try their hand at pounding the rice in an enormous mortar and pestle, as part of the Ok Ambok tradition.
As far as we know, it looks like the boat races are still scheduled to take place from Sunday 26 November to Monday 27 November 2023, but we’ll update those details if anything changes. During the festival, you can also expert to find riverside markets, street food stalls, pop-up beer bars, live music, traditional performances and games on the Siem Reap River banks and in parks and gardens, as well as fireworks, and partying on and around Pub Street.
TRADITIONAL ARTS EVENTS: this year there are also cultural events happening at various venues around town, such as a show by the Sbek Thom Khmer Shadow Puppet Theatre Troupe, which will perform at 7.30pm, 25 November at Amami Gelato Siem Reap on Street 26 in the Wat Bo neighbourhood. It’s a rare opportunity to see the Unesco-listed Khmer Shadow Theatre, which is on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, and a chance to support Khmer arts and artists. Entrance is free.
BON OM TOUK MUSIC FESTIVAL: Not only will you get to experience traditional arts and culture at the Water Festival… if you’re keen to see some contemporary Cambodian indy music, check out the Bon Om Touk Music Festival, also being held on 25 November at Road 60 Studios, where seven bands will perform on the one stage for one night only. You’ll get to see Geography of the Moon, Jam Cha!, Japan Guitar Shop, Joe and the Jumping Jacks, Kampot Playboys, Sam Rocker, and Scapegoat Candy.
BOAT RACES: Unless something changes (and that’s always a possibility in Cambodia!), the Water Festival boat races will kick off on Sunday 26 November, Day #1 of the Boat Races, with a blessing ceremony of the boats at 3pm on the Siem Reap River. On Monday 27 November, Day #2 of the Boat Races will begin at 8am and final rounds to take place at 3pm. The closing ceremony usually takes place around 5pm and at 11pm there will be the lighting of the floating lanterns on the river.
WHERE TO WATCH THE BOAT RACES: The best places to watch the boat races are the grassy riverside areas of the Old French Quarter and Wat Bo neighbourhood on the opposite bank. There are plenty of trees shading the riverside, but wear a hat and sunblock. More tips at the end of this post.
WHERE TO STAY: The Old French Quarter and Wat Bo neighbourhood are also the best areas to stay in for the Siem Reap Water Festival, with plenty of excellent budget, mid-range and boutique hotels within walking distance of the river. Keep in mind that many streets are closed during the festival and traffic gets heavy, so you want to stay close to the river.
If you’re not going to be in Cambodia in November 2023, but are planning to travel to Cambodia in 2024, try to time your travel to coincide with the Siem Reap Water Festival, one of many festive events held across the country as part of the Cambodia Water Festival or Bon Om Tuk, also see spelt as Bon Om Touk, Bonn Om Teuk or Bonn Om Toeuk in the Khmer language. Need more inspiration? See Terence’s images from the Siem Reap Water Festival.
Scroll down for more tips to experiencing the Siem Reap Water Festival in 2023 and do bookmark this page if you’re planning on being in Cambodia for the 2023 Siem Reap Water Festival as we’ll update this post as more information becomes available. We’ll paste the new 2023 Siem Reap Water Festival programme at the end of this post as soon as it’s available.
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Updated and Re-Published 27 October 2023
Siem Reap Water Festival – A Celebration to Mark the End of Monsoon
Like Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben Ancestors Festival, Bon Om Touk is one of the most important Cambodian holidays of the year. Occurring on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, falling in November.
The Cambodian Water Festival has traditionally marked the end of monsoon and (hopefully) a bountiful rice season, the reversal of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) current, and the start of the fishing season, with boats races, water rituals, celebrations, and fireworks.
The Long History of the Siem Reap Water Festival
Visit the sublime Bayon temple in Angkor Archaeological Park, and the former garrison city of Banteay Chhmar, built during the reign of King Jayavarman II, whose kingdom extended as far as Sukhothai (in Thailand) and Champa (in Vietnam), and you will see bas reliefs depicting water festival ceremonies, boat races and navy battles on water.
Today’s Siem Reap Water Festival dates back to the regattas held under King Jayavarman VII, who chose the champions as the sailors who would go into battle on the lake and seas. The races were also a way for the navy to practice and show off their strength and stamina and it must have been quite a motivating tool.
Inscriptions indicate that from the 12th century on, the victories of the navy were celebrated every November with boat races on the rivers and lakes and ceremonies of gratitude for the fertile land and rain that provided rice for sustenance and strength.
Traditionally, the festival featured ceremonies that included the floating of a candle-lit boat (Loy Pratip), a full moon ceremony (Sampeas Preah Khe), and the pounding and eating of new rice, generally with coconut water (Ork Ambok), to give thanks to the land and water. If you’re in Siem Reap you’ll notice that in addition to the more traditional floating candle ceremony, there are modern floats illuminated by flashing neon lights.
It’s said that in the old days, the boats, called pirogues – manned by both men and women – had a dancer who moved gracefully on the bow to motivate the rowers. There are no dancers these days, but nor do any of the rowers need motivating!
In Siem Reap, the water levels have been so high some years that the rowers have had to quickly duck as the boats zipped beneath the bridges, which might have been challenging for those graceful dancers.
A Chance to Celebrate with the Locals
As we discovered during our first Khmer New Year after moving to Cambodia in 2010, and again during the Water Festival and international New Year, Cambodians love a celebration. They relish spending leisure time with family and friends.
No matter how rich or poor they are, Cambodians make an effort to bring their extended family together to spend their spiritual and national holidays together, with everyone from old grannies to the littlest kids coming together to enjoy the festivals.
And Cambodians love a party. They treasure few things more than the chance to sit with loved-ones, drinking, eating and chatting, sharing some cold beers and a small bottle of rice wine with friends and family. They go out to have a good time and they make the most of it.
Cambodians also appreciate the communal aspect of holidays. They treasure being part of a community and being surrounded by other people enjoying themselves. Everybody cheers for every boat that is racing. There’s little of the favouritism, competitiveness or aggression that you see at so many of these sorts of events around the world. Everybody seems to be there to support… well… everyone.
One thing that strikes foreign visitors is how incredibly warm, welcoming and kind the Cambodian people are. They are generous with their smiles and greetings and always seem genuinely delighted that visitors want to experience their culture and traditions and celebrate holidays with them.
There have been so many times over the years during the festivals when people looked at us and seemed truly pleased to see us getting involved and enjoying ourselves, giving us the thumbs-up and smiling approvingly.
If Cambodians speak English, as many young people do, they’ll ask you if you’re having a good time and make an effort to include you. During Khmer New Year, I was on the receiving end of a number of invitations to join the round dancing. At the Water Festival, people made room for us to squeeze in to watch the river action and apologised if they were in my way or we stepped on each other’s toes.
Celebrating with the locals at traditional holidays such as the Siem Reap Water Festival, Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben is a wonderful way to get an insight into the culture and the everyday life of a place, as well as just have a great time with the locals.
A Mood of Optimism on Display
We have been witness to an ever-increasing sense of optimism and entrepreneurial spirit during our time living in Cambodia, especially during public celebrations and national holidays. We see it during every Khmer New Year and Siem Reap Water Festival, each time on a whole different level to the year before.
The leafy riverside streets are closed to traffic during the Siem Reap Water Festival and behind the masses of people crowding the riverbank to watch the boat races, scores of stalls line the road and fill the parks, and vendors roam the streets selling all sorts of things with a smile. And they are selling everything, from tractors, children’s toys and fashionable clothes to phone plans, rice cookers and cold drinks.
Each year we’re impressed with how the street food is on a scale and variety we hadn’t seen on the streets of Siem Reap before. There are the ubiquitous sellers of corn on the cob, steamed dumplings, barbecued meats and offals on skewers, grilled sausages, pickled fruits, baby duck eggs, crunchy river crabs, roti, and pancakes.
But last year there were also glass cases crammed with fresh spring rolls, trays upon trays of deep-fried treats, from dumplings to fried spring rolls, cauldrons of rich aromatic curries, mountains of sandwiches and burgers (perhaps for the foreigners?), and pyramids of traditional colourful desserts.
Countless travel stories depict Cambodia as a site of tragedy, where the people remain gripped by the suffering and grief they experienced at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of the mid to late Seventies. But those representations are no longer true and don’t depict the Cambodia we know.
While many older Cambodians probably do still struggle with post-traumatic stress from that tragic period, if the mood of the hundreds of thousands of people who converge on Siem Reap for the Water Festival each year is any indicator, Cambodians appear to be loving life right now.
How to Experience the Siem Reap Water Festival in 2023
If you’re heading here during the Siem Reap Water Festival, make a beeline for the riverside roads and side streets, the Royal Gardens and riverside park opposite, where most of the activities take place each year.
Expect to find bands performing on stages, stalls selling food and drinks, and tables and chairs spread across the parks that will be crammed with groups of Cambodian families and friends.
Temporary beer bars are established and stalls start to get set up a couple of days before the boat races, so most likely on or before Friday 24 November this year, with the action on the water starting around 3pm on the first official day of the boat races of Siem Reap Water Festival.
You can usually find the starting line for the boat races near Siem Reap’s main bridge, known as the Old Stone Bridge, on National Route #6 (the main highway to Phnom Penh), which is also known as Airport Road on the other side of the bridge.
This is the bridge that’s closest to the Royal Gardens and riverside exercise area. The bridge is usually closed to traffic during the Siem Reap Water Festival, sometimes for 2-3 blocks either side of Siem Reap River.
Don’t bother trying to track down a boat race programme just yet. They’re usually released much closer to the date of the festival. Plus race times are typically off by 30 minutes to one hour, with the boat races often running up to an hour later than scheduled, and the fireworks sometimes starting half an hour earlier. A closing ceremony was scheduled for 3pm on day two of last year’s Siem Reap Water Festival, however, it began closer to sunset…
Our best advice is to be flexible and go with the flow. Try to stick around for the closing ceremony as it’s quite a sight seeing all the boats on the water at once and the teams celebrating as the sun begins to sink. It’s magic if there’s a pink sky.
On the evening of day two, starting around 7-8pm there are usually some official speeches followed by traditional water festival and full moon rituals that date back to the Khmer Empire era, including a candle lighting ceremony, floating of paper boats on the river, a rice husk pounding ceremony, the traditional form of shadow puppet theatre called Sbek Thom, and more fireworks, live music, eating and drinking. It’s a fantastic time to be in Siem Reap.
Our Tips for the 2023 Siem Reap Water Festival
- The 2023 Siem Reap Water Festival will be celebrated over 4 days from Saturday 25 to Tuesday 28 November 2023, wth the boat races taking place from 3pm 26 November and all day on 27 November.
- Book your Siem Reap accommodation as far in advance as you can – budget and mid-range accommodation can book up weeks ahead of the holiday. Visitors are overwhelmingly Cambodian tourists and prefer to stay in more affordable mid-range accommodation while people from the provinces will camp out on the riverbank in tents, under mosquito nets and on fold-out beds. The Siem Reap Water Festival has become a major event on the Cambodia tourist calendar and attracts more and more tourists each year, so do plan in advance.
- Risk the urge to plan too far ahead of time – the schedules for the last two Siem Reap Water Festivals were released only a few days before the holiday, so don’t expect full details regarding the boat races until close to the event.
- Be flexible and prepared to go with the flow – based on our experience of the Siem Reap Water Festival over the last decade, the first boat race usually takes place at 2pm on day one and the finals and prize giving at around sunset on day two. However, this is Cambodia and things change.
- Monitor the weather in Cambodia as there could still be a little rain – the festival takes place on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk, which falls in October/November, marking the end of the monsoon. While the rainy season is meant to be over by this time, if there’s a downpour see our ideas for things to do in Siem Reap when it rains.
- See our guide to Cambodian street food to try during the Siem Reap Water Festival, but when you’re ready to sample more Cambodian food, browse our guides to breakfast in Siem Reap, the city’s best markets, and our reviews of the best Cambodian restaurants for authentic food.
- Prepare as you would for the temples – be respectful and dress modestly. While the weather is starting to cool down, it will still be warm, so wear loose linens or cottons, a hat, sunblock, and 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 guide to Things to do in Siem Reap.
- Travelling here with the kids? See our Guide to Siem Reap for Families and whatever you do, don’t miss the Phare Cambodian Circus (incredibly charming, funny and talented performers only; no animals!)
- If planning a trip for the 2024 Siem Reap Water Festival due, check the official Tourism Cambodia website and local newspapers, the Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times, around June 2024 to ensure the festival is on. It’s been cancelled in the past due to heavy monsoon rains and widespread flooding, as well as during the peak pandemic periods. On a positive note, end of November rarely sees rain, so you should be right.
Siem Reap Water Festival Programme SAMPLE ONLY
NOTE: This is an old Siem Reap Water Festival programme just to give you an idea as to what to expect. As soon as a new 2023 programme is available, we’ll paste it here.
Royal Celebration of Water Festival, Illuminated Floats, Sampeas Preah Khe and Ork Ambok Siem Reap
- 1.30pm Gathering of racing boat members and technical committee
- 2pm Arrival of distinguished guests and opening remarks by Siem Reap Governor, national anthem, ‘voice of victory’ and release of balloons at the official delegate box on the riverbank on the Old French Quarter side
- 3pm Boat racing begins on Siem Reap River
- 6pm Boats gather in front of official delegate box to mark the end of day one
- 6.30pm Lighting of the illuminated floats and fireworks
- 8-11pm onwards Public arts performances in front of Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor opposite the Royal Gardens
- 8am Semi-final rounds of boat racing
- 2pm Final rounds of boat racing
- 5pm Closing ceremony: boats gather in front of official delegate box for closing remarks, presentation of trophies, national anthem, ‘voice of victory’, and fireworks
- 7.30pm Sampeas Preah Khe and Ork Ambok ceremonies begin in front of Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor with speeches by Siem Reap Governor and delegates
- 8pm Sampeas Preah Khe ceremony including ritual lighting of candles and incense and moon salutation
- Dal Ambok ceremony (Khmer flattening of rice ritual), victory candle-lighting and wishing for rain ceremony, floating of illuminated floats ceremony, and fireworks
- 8pm-midnight Traditional arts performances and concert in front of Raffles until midnight to greet the full moon
- live bands at the riverside beer bars and partying on Pub Street and surrounding streets.
First Published 5 November 2014; Re-published with new information 27 October 2023; Last Updated with new dates and further details on 23 November 2023