Bon Om Touk - Water Festival
Updated: May 4, 2020
Cambodia has a few national holidays that they celebrate throughout the year and I have been lucky enough to be in Cambodia for two of their biggest celebrations. This past week Cambodia has celebrated Bon Om Touk, otherwise known as the Water Festival, during which, they give thanks to the Gods for the Mekong river and pray for prosperity which comes from the livelihoods provided by the Mekong.
Preparations for the water festival start a few weeks in advance. Each province has a boat race in their main town, for example Kampong Thom Province holds their boat race in Kampong Thom town. The winners of each province take part in the main boat race on the Mekong river in-front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh gets really busy and can be really unsafe during Bon Om Touk - in 2010 over 300 died in a stampede on a bridge due to water festival crowds. A a tourist I would avoid Phnom Penh during this festival, so if you're thinking of travelling to Cambodia in November, make sure you check the festival dates before you book. Kind of the exact opposite of Pchum Ben when most people leave Phnom Penh and it's deserted haha.
Theavy and our Khmer volunteers planned a water festival celebration social day for us as our social day fell in the middle of the 3 day celebration. Naturally, with it being a water festival, the day started off with cloud and drizzle and then rained almost all day, but that didn't dampen our spirits. It was the first social day I felt we all worked amazingly as a team. Each of counterparts had to find and collect the natural resources we were going to use and then everyone had a part to play throughout the day. We collected coconuts and bamboo, which were used to make bowls, kebab skewers, chopsticks and cups for our meal and we hand made these in the morning. It was such a simple activity which saw using natural products that were no longer needed made into reusable products, of course I will be taking my coconut bowl home as Theavy helped me and its so good! We then cooked pork and vegetable kebabs on the BBQ, cooked by head chef Santana, deep fried mushrooms (delicious), shrimp salad ( not for me) and made boklahong (papaya salad - not sure how I feel about it) and rice of course. After food we used the flowers and leaves we had collected to make our own Bratip. These are made to offer to the Gods on the river, so we made them as good looking as we could, with incense and candles and then we took them down to the riverside and watched them float down the river. Some sunk like the titanic, others got stuck in the river bed but most looks amazing and it was a really nice activity to do together as a group.
After we made the Bratip we had Ambok which is the traditional water festival food. It is made with what I think is flattened and dried grains of rice, which form what I can only compare with plain tasting almond flakes, or flatter muesli type stuff. This is eaten ether by itself, which is very bland and dry, or with sugar and coconut water or sugar and condensed milk. We had it with sugar, condensed milk and banana and it was delicious. Everyone had a massive sugar high afterward but we ate it all and we ate nearly all the fresh fruit ew had - apples, bananas, coconut, dragon fruit, pineapples etc. Our 'offering' table looked beaut - photo below. It was an amazing day to learn about one of the biggest festivals of the khmer culture, and to see how you can host a party/event without plastic and ensuring everything is reusable. The whole team really enjoyed themselves and I am really happy the Khmer volunteers were able to share this celebration with us and teach us something new, it was pretty special.
It was also pretty amazing to see how quickly 21 people can clean up an extremely messy office and get it back in working order - less than 1 hour including the intense amount of washing up haha.