Cambodia’s Bonn Om Touk Festival

Phnom Penh street scene.
Phnom Penh street scene.

A River Runs Through It: Cambodia’s Splashy Bonn Om Touk Festival

By Dagmar Busshoff

Fluttering flags embroider the waterfront. Laughing workman carry hundreds of strings of white mini-lights to drape every imaginable surface along the quay. The atmosphere is as electrifying as the lights, though, for I can feel the buzz of excitement in the air. From a ladder, one fellow calls out, “Welcome to Phnom Penh! Enjoy Moon and Water Festival tomorrow.”

During Bonn Om Touk, held each November in Phnom Penh, the banks of the Tonle Sap River explode with thousands of visitors from across the country, including some 325 boat racing teams. The three-day festival–also known as the Water and Moon Festival–begins on the last day of the full moon. It marks the reversing of the Tonle Sap River current and opens the fishing season. If rivers can froth, flood or dry up, there’s every reason to believe that they can change directions too.

Lumbering like elephants, overladen ferries appear with more festival-goers as well as racing boats. Today, I’m happy to be safely on shore winding my way through the increasing throngs of visitors. Already, the open fields between the Tonle Sap River and the adjacent roads have turned into an informal market and campground. Scenes from Woodstock, albeit with clothes, keep popping into my head. Being practical by nature, I wonder when the Johnnies-on-the-Spot will show up.

Down at the waterfront, the preliminary races are in full swing. Brightly painted 40-foot boats take to the choppy waters. I count 65 rowers in each boat, arms battling in unison to sweep
their crafts along at high speeds. Shouting spectators throw their encouraging words into the wind hoping to influence the outcome of their home team.

At the water’s edge, crews make last minute adjustments to the boats. On closer inspection, we discover that the boats are truly works of art. Many have intricate designs painted from bow to stern. Palm fronds, garlands, and tropical fruit arrangements festoon the Buddhist prayer umbrella anchored to one bow.

Back in the festival melee, a team of rowers dressed in bright yellow T-shirts with logos and matching ball caps spots my large camera. Would I take their photo? While I’m delighted, I wonder if they think it’s a Polaroid camera and I’m able to give them an instant snap. Friendly Cambodian monks wrapped in burnt orange robes, swell the ranks of curious onlookers. One offers to explain my dilemma to the team members who, nevertheless, eagerly pose. From them I learn that each boat has a sponsor. Apparently, the price of building a boat comes in at a staggering $8,000 US, making sponsorship essential in a country where the average person earns less than $300 US a year.

During the next two days, I’m still waiting for the river to change its direction, although I sense that it appears to be flowing downstream already. Meanwhile, we join the thousands of onlookers at the races, lose our voices yelling for the yellow team I’d photographed, and munch on boiled and broiled corn, sweet pastry treats and deep-fried meats. Women and girls in the prettiest sun hats capture my eye. Children bounce through the crowds with origami-style paper birds wind born on sticks. Smiles and twinkling eyes greet me as I soak up the spirit of the festival.

The full moon celebration includes a parade of lighted floats sailing before and after the splashy fireworks display. For the Cambodians, the midnight celebrations are a way of thanking nature for its abundance and asking for good luck in the coming year. Midnight meals of pounded rice form part of the traditional ceremonies. On the final day of the races, two lead boats, one carrying a sword, head to the finish line where a vine has been stretched. The line symbolizes the gate that retains the water. When the sword slices through the vine, the water flows downstream once again.

A massive cheer rises from tens of thousands of visitors lining the banks and spilling from the boats. The life-giving waters of the Mekong had brought rich soil to Cambodia’s central and northwest rice regions and fish stock to the “Great Lake.” It was indeed a time for thanks. Although I’m swept away by the infectious jubilation and gratitude, I do note that there’s no change in the direction of the current. I am assured that the river does indeed change direction, though sometimes not exactly in time with the festival (*see below for explanation).

In our travels we’d learned respect for the rivers — wild whitewater, severe river flooding in Asia, dry riverbeds begging for rain in Australia. And while we didn’t actually witness the reversing of the Tonle Sap River, what a surprise to learn that when the river reverses its course twice a year, it brings abundance instead of hardship to Cambodia’s people. Now that’s reason to celebrate.

*Why does the river change its course?

The Tonle Sap River connects Cambodia’s Tonle Sap or “Great Lake” to the Mekong River. During the monsoon period from July to November each year, the Mekong River swells to such an extent that its waters back up into the Tonle Sap River, changing its flow, which in turn floods the Great Lake three times its size and depth. Here the flooding is not seen as dangerous but as desirable, because the waters bring fertile loam for the land and fish stock for the lake.

Once the monsoon rains recede in November, the Mekong returns to its normal size and the waters from the Great Lake drain into the Tonle Sap River once again, causing the river to flow downstream. Because the monsoon rains vary in length and quantity, the reversing of the currents doesn’t always coincide with the festival.

Over the years, there has been the threat of logging the Tonle Sap and building a power dam on the lower Mekong, both of which would endanger the fish stocks and arable land of 85% of Cambodia’s population. Happily in 1998, the UN declared the Tonle Sap a Biosphere Reserve.


Puncak Brasserie in the Puncak Hotel (above) serves fresh cuisine daily. Both Asian and continental dishes are delicious and affordable.

Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia (FCCC)
363 Sisowath Boulevard
Tel: 015-911383
Located on the riverside, it’s a superb spot to get a bird’s eye view of life on the river. Head up to the third floor, (and yes, it’s stairs all the way) where you’ll be able to sip a refreshing drink while sitting on bar stools overlooking the street and river. A blackboard posts the daily special and a fixed price three-course meal (usually around $10 US). À la carte dining is also available. While you’ll miss the noisier bar atmosphere, ask for a table out back on the flowered terrace.

River Pavillions
Sisowath Quay
A series of pavilions called River 1 through River 4 along the Tonle Sap River. Each pavilion offers a different menu. River 4 specializes in Spanish and Belgian food, while River 3 offers excellent Khmer food. All prices are in Cambodian Riels instead of US dollars. Tiger Draft Beer is on tap all day for “happy hour “prices. A terrific, clean place to relax away from the noisy traffic.

An excellent intro to Cambodia including a 47-second video clip and numerous links can be found at the Embassy of Cambodia in Washington DC.

For Khmer news and e-postcards


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