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, traditional ceremonies, celebrations, and fireworks.
This year, the 3-day Siem Reap Water Festival will take place on 21, 22 and 23 November 2018, with two days of boat races, riverside markets, street food stalls, pop-up beer bars, live music concerts, traditional performances and games on the river bank and in parks and gardens, as well as nightly fireworks, and partying on and around Pub Street.
Boat races usually begin at 2pm on the first day, so 21 November on the Siem Reap River and typically finish with a closing ceremony at 5pm on the second day 22 November. If you’re in Siem Reap, 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 going to be here, but are planning to travel to Cambodia in 2019, 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 (which you’ll also see spelt as Bon Om Touk, Bonn Om Teuk or Bonn Om Toeuk in the Khmer language).
Need more inspiration? See this post for more images from the Siem Reap Water Festival.
We’ve pasted the 2018 programme at the end of this post.
Updated: 21 November 2018
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, generally falling in November, it 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 temples of Bayon and Banteay Chhmar that were built during the reign of King Jayavarman II, whose kingdom extended as far as Sukhothai (Thailand) and Champa (central and south 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 the candles have been replaced by 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. In Siem Reap, the water levels have been so high that the rowers have had to duck as the boats zipped beneath the bridges!
A Chance to Celebrate with the Locals
As we discovered during our first Khmer New Year after moving to Cambodia, and again at the Water Festival, Cambodians love a celebration. They love to spend time with family and friends. No matter how rich or poor they are, Cambodians make an effort to enjoy their spiritual and national holidays together, with everyone from the old grannies to the littlest kids, with or without pants.
Cambodians love to socialise and they love to party. They love nothing more than sitting around with loved-ones, drinking and eating. Even if they’re poor and they are drinking and eating very little, they enjoy sharing some cold beers and a bottle of rice wine with friends and family. They go out to have a good time and they make the most of it.
Cambodians love the communal aspect of holidays. They enjoy being part of a community and being surrounded by other people who are enjoying themselves. Everybody cheered for every boat that was racing. There was none of the favoritism, competitiveness or aggression that you see at so many of these sorts of events around the world. Everybody seemed to be there to support… well… everyone.
The Cambodian people are incredibly warm, welcoming, friendly, and hospitable people. They are generous with their smiles and greetings to foreigners. They seem genuinely delighted that we want to experience their culture and traditions and celebrate with them. There were many times during the festival when people looked at us and were pleased to see us getting involved, smiling approvingly.
If Cambodians speak English, as most 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 they apologised if they were in my way or we stepped on eachother’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 a 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 saw it during Khmer New Year and again during the Siem Reap Water Festival on a whole different level to that seen in Cambodia 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 hours of boat races, hundreds 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 cheap clothes to phone plans, rice cookers and cold drinks.
The street food is on a scale and variety we’ve not seen in 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.
Countless travel stories depict Cambodia as a dark, depressing place 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. While many Cambodians still struggle with post-traumatic stress some 40 years after that tragic period, if the mood of the tens of thousands of people at the Siem Reap Water Festival every year is any indicator, Cambodians appear to be loving life right now.
How to Experience the Siem Reap Water Festival in 2018
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. 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.
While beer bars will be established and stalls start to get set up a couple of days before the boat races, the action on the water typically starts around 2pm on the first day of the Siem Reap Water Festival.
You’ll 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 park. The bridge is typically 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. Race times are typically off by 30 minutes to one hour, with the boat races running an hour later than scheduled, and the fireworks 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 8pm there were 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 2018 Siem Reap Water Festival
- The 2018 Siem Reap Water Festival will be celebrated on 21, 22 & 23 November 2018 wth the boat races taking place 21 & 22 November. Programme below.
- Book your Siem Reap accommodation as far in advance as you can – while there were plenty of hotel and resort rooms available in recent years, budget and mid-range accommodation can book up weeks ahead of the holiday. Visitors are overwhelmingly Cambodian tourists and prefer to stay in guesthouses while people from the provinces will camp out on the riverbank in tents, under mosquito nets and on fold-out beds. It’s predicted that the Siem Reap Water Festival could become a major event on the Cambodia tourist calendar and will attract 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 in recent years, the first boat race should take 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 2019 Siem Reap Water Festival due, check the official Tourism Cambodia website in October to ensure the festival is on. It’s been cancelled in the past due to heavy monsoon rains and widespread flooding. In fact, the water levels during the 2014 festival were so high after a couple of weeks of relentless overnight rains (as you can see in Terence’s photo, above) that it was almost cancelled. On a positive note, end of November rarely sees rain, so you should be right.
2018 Siem Reap Water Festival Programme
Royal Celebration of Water Festival, Illuminated Floats, Sampeas Preah Khe and Ork Ambok Siem Reap, 21st-22nd November 2018
21 November 2018
- 1.30pm Gathering of racing boat members and technical committee
- 2pm Arrival of distinguished guests and Opening remarks by Siem Reap Governor HE Dr Khim Bunson, national anthem, ‘voice of victory’ and release of balloons at the official delegate box on the riverbank on the 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
22 November 2018
- 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 (prepare to get wet and covered in flour!)
Updated: 21 October 2018