sually each year at the end of October or the beginning of November the Water Festival (Bon Om Touk) is being celebrated in Cambodia. A festival that has the whole population waiting in anticipation. But during the festivities in 2010 around 350 Cambodians were trampled to death when panic broke out. Because of this reason (and a few others) the festivities where not held in the past three years. You can imagine that the pent up anticipation of 4 years of waiting are palpable and that all bets are off for the ensuing party of parties.
During the water festival the transition from the rainy season to the dry season is being celebrated. You would party for less, because all that rain and terrible heat and stifling humidity is no joke. Not that we don’t think it is still pretty damn hot and humid, but hey, were wimpy Northern Europeans.
At the same time the flow of the Tonlé Sap river is reversed. The Tonlé Sap lake lies in a low basin and is connected via the Tonlé Sap river to the Mekong. During the dry season the water level of the lake is higher than the water level of the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap river flows towards the Mekong. So far nothing too surprising. However during the rainy season the water level in the Mekong rises enormously, boosting its water level higher than that of the Tonlé Sap lake, and – little wonder of nature- the flow of the Tonlé Sap river is reversed and starts flowing towards the Tonlé Sap lake. As if this feat of nature was not spectacular enough, this makes the lake grow to up to five times its dry season size, flooding the adjacent land. When the dry season finally returns, the reversal of the flow of the Tonlé Sap river, opens up beautifully fertilized fields for the Cambodian farmers to work on and leaves behind pools of nutrient-rich water absolutely filled with fish. As you might remember from the history classes, a bit like Egypt before they dammed the Nile.
So, no more rain, a wonder of nature, and on top of that easily fertilized fields and free fish. Sounds better than Christmas!
During the 3 day festival about 400 rowing boats compete for glory (and apparently some prize money) on the Tonlé Sap river. The rowboats are long slender boats propelled by up to 60 rowers. The boats are often carved out of one massive tree and painted with precision. Sinking this beautiful piece of work is not an option. The rowing teams have traveled out of every corner of the country, normally each boat represents a certain region. So you don’t only defend the honor of your team, but of your entire community. That means of course that not only the rowing teams head to Phnom Penh but a complete entourage of villagers, friends and groupies join them to live through the festivities. On the other side of the city center, a whole “olympic” village is created where a few days before the main events hundreds of thousands of Cambodians alight. We have heard that during the festival itself up to 2 to 3 million people join in the fun.
Meanwhile big river boats are being transformed into floating carnival floats (apparently representing government agencies and the like) to be lit up by millions of little lights at the end of each day to entertain and amaze the crowds. A whole metal installation is erected, lights are being hoisted to the top and put into flashy formations, to – literally – outshine the stars.
The riverside promenade next to the Tonlé Sap river is overflowing with food stalls where you can eat your fill with anything from little clams to bamboo-rice, going over fried tarantulas and sugarcane juice, chicken feet, etc… Every food stall owner in Cambodia seems to have congregated here, because this is definitely the place to do big business! Most of it feels very relaxed, a bit like a sea side fair, but quite a bit more crowded. At the edge of the embankment eager spectators have amassed and on the other side of the river the entourages of all the rowers are obviously having an awesome time.
The rowboats race one on one each time, with only the winner going through to the next round, a real knock out competition. Apparently there are several categories, some boats are smaller (maybe some of the villages have not been able to find a tree big enough to seat 60), some boats seem to have both men and women rowing, etc… Racing takes place within each category.
Each time two boats are set to leave, low on the water, paddles at the ready, spectators full of anticipation. Drums beating, the coaches start screaming and “zoof, zoof, zoof” , they are sliding next to each other, skimming on the surface, “hooh, hah, hooh, hah”, under loud encouragement of the coach the paddles are simultaneously forced into the water. The bows of the boats are dancing in a seesaw motion, ahead, behind, ahead, behind… It stays pretty close. Who is going to win? Inch by inch they shoot forward, which boat is ahead, behind? “Hooh hah”, the finish line, and one team has to go home disappointed. At the starting line the next two boats are already set to go, “hooh, hah, woosh, woosh”, another winner…
In Belgium the crowd would be shouting, shaking their fists and what not, but here it is all pretty tuned down. However, this does not decrease the tension in the air, nor diminish the excitement and joy felt by the crowd. The more losers that have to leave the watery arena, the more the rising anticipation is palpable. Who is going to win?? A lot of the spectators are also pressing little radios against their ears, to be sure not to miss a single thing.
The supporters of the finalists are standing on the tip of their toes. Excitement, excitement, excitement and then suddenly, two bows are not just dancing, suddenly they are fencing, and the leading boat mercilessly starts to sink beneath the waves, less than a second later its rowers are up to their knees in the water. As quickly as possible speedboats are racing to the rescue, because being able to row does not automatically mean being able to swim and the newly reversed Tonlé Sap flows dangerously fast. One competitor less in the race, they will have to find a new tree for next year…
And suddenly, a final winner is proclaimed, not that we really understood who won and in what category.
On the other side of the river, it doesn’t seem to matter too much who won anyways, because everybody seems to party along. Ferris wheels full of lights start to turn, Gangnam Style is blaring through the sound systems, the headlights of many thousands of scooters weave through the crowds. They are definitely having an all out party, everybody joins in, because that seems to be the main reason for the whole festival. Millions of villagers just head to Phnom Penh from their regular rice paddy rural life and join in for one massive party in the big city.
To top it all off fireworks start to illuminate the sky and the big floats slide by one by one under the full moon accompanied by repetitive disneylandesque music (think “It’s a small world after all”). A “feast” for all the senses… When it starts to rain a little, some of the floats start to steam worryingly, but that doesn’t ruin the fun in the least. A spectacular parade of lights to end a few days of excitement and festivities and to bring years of anticipation to a successful close.
Till next year!