The Water Festival

Disclaimer:the views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not reflect those of VSO’.

This is one of the biggest cultural events in the Khmer year.  There are various stories about its origin.   The one I found most convincing was that it emerged from a mediaeval commander’s desire to ensure that his troops were well equipped to deal with any threat, on any of the four different areas of land divided by the ‘four rivers’ at Phnom Penh.  The timing is both to do with the full moon (which determines the specific days each year) and the change of direction of the Tonle (River) Sap.   During rainy season, the Mekong river brings so much water down from the North that it backs up the Tonle Sap, reversing the flow, and fills the lake which lies in the centre of the country – a natural flood relief which brings rich silt and lots of fish:  a major source of the agricultural wealth of Cambodia.   However at some point in November, as the level of the Mekong falls, the Sap river starts flowing back towards the sea, emptying the inland lake.  It’s on this southern flow that the boat races take place, so they move at some speed during the race, running down with the flow the 3 or 4km from the Japanese Friendship bridge to the royal palace, where two red boats mark the finish line.   Boats run against each other in round after round of eliminations.  They start off in pairs, and by the end of the second day, only the really good boats are left.  The teams obviously really enjoy the event – many have been practising all year.   There are elimination races all round the country over the previous few weeks, so it’s mainly really good teams taking part, although on the first day there were well over 400 boats competing in different size categories.    Rowing back up river is no joke, although some of the teams seem to be celebrating their victory while others are just happy it’s all over!!

The VSO boat, despite being amateurs among professionals (they had two practices and most people only attended one) did well  – they crossed the line at some speed, albeit they were overtaken by two races that set off behind them!   However, as with previous VSO boats, they declined the chance to row back up river and drifted downriver, beaching up over a kilometre past the finish line.    Here is the VSO boat (in the distance – orange t-shirts) crossing the line:

I felt rather ashamed not to be part of the team – but for once I was quite sensible.  I don’t think my knee would have held up to the pressures of the kneeling/standing/balancing required.   I watched the races on the first day from the ‘foreigner enclosure’ – a marquee with ‘wedding style’ covered seats, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and located in a perfect viewing spot next to the royal enclosure.

This is the first #foreigner# thing I have come across which was free.. usually we are charged a special extra price!!   Lots of teams had their supporters further upriver, or even across the river, on the banks.

Police had cleared away all the stalls and street sellers from the area around the royal palace and special access routes were protected for the many VIPs in their Lexus and Range Rover 4x4s.  At one point I hung around outside the gates as it looked as though the King might be coming out, but it was only these finely arrayed flunkeys, carrying what looked like it might be a trophy to the royal enclosure.

There was a fantastic carnival atmosphere about the place.  Only police or VIP cars are allowed anywhere near the river so this part of the city becomes a pedestrian park and as it gets closer and closer to the evening, the crowds gather in bigger and bigger numbers.    I walked all around last evening – the first evening I couldn’t get past my own area!!   Walking around, I felt like I was coming out of a major event, like a football international or cup final, but instead of the crowd gradually dispersing , it got busier and busier, each corner that you turned round.   They say that half the population of Cambodia ends up in Phnom Penh over these three days .. and the crowds are so young, a real cross section of the population.   My camera wasn’t up to photos in the dark, but here are some twilight photos to give you a feel for the event.

boat racefinish line!


karaoke stars perform for the crowds

sunset picnics outside the royal palace



5 thoughts on “The Water Festival

  1. Hi Danny
    when Ruth was in Thailand there was a farang rate and non farang but she discovered the key to acheiving the non farang rate was to speak Thai – does that not work in cambodia – well obviously not with Thai but with Khymer?
    The races sound quite an event
    You are in the homeward stretch to seeing Joan now ….take care and thanks for your blog Lois

  2. Have just been watching the tragedy unfold on the BBC world news website
    Can’t take it in as I was just looking and marvelling at your pictures and video clips of the fantastic boats and festival atmosphere.
    I will pray for Cambodia tonight.

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