Bon Om Touk in Phnom Penh.

I woke up this morning with the sunrise and throwing open my doors I watched as the sun rose over the Mekong River. Definite goose bumps (pimples) moment which was augmented somehow by the atmosphere along the river bank. There seemed to be an air of expectancy about the place, which I couldn’t define but I knew it was there, so, leaving the doors open I went back to bed and listened. The hum grew, there was banging and pounding, beeping of course, but also laughing, shrills voices, faint cheers, boat horns sounding, this was no ordinary start to the day in Phnom Penh. No it was not. It is actually the start of Bon Om Touk, Bon Om Thook, Bonn Om Teuk or Bon Om Tuk. Oh really you say. Yes it is and it is exactly why I came to Cambodia at this time of year. The primary river of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap, does this miraculous thing twice every year. It changes direction. Yes! Really! During most of the year it flows South from the big Lake in the North and joins up with the Mekong here in Phnom Penh. During the rainy season however when the Mekong reaches flood stage the water in the Tonle Sap reverses direction and flows to the North back into the lake. I think that is most unusual and amazing and wanted to see it for myself. I missed it by a matter of days and the TS is now flowing to the South again, but the Cambodians think this is amazing too apparently and there is a huge week long festival, which began in the Twelfth Century, to celebrate the change of direction, it starts today and it is right outside my window.

The schools are closed, the population has the week off, the saffron robed monks are out in force blessing everybody, food booths have sprung up everywhere, the authorities are fencing off the green bits of the riverside park (hence the pounding and banging), the cops are everywhere, lounging on their motorcycles and on the river there are hundreds and hundreds of Dragon boats. Crewed by anything up to eighty rowers these brightly colored racing boats are up to one hundred feet long, many feature an eye on either side of the prow to ward off evil spirits and there will be three days of racing starting on Wednesday. Not only do the rowers face forwards, unlike back home, but there are some boats with all the rowers standing up. Today, and for the next two days there will be practices and elimination rounds. I was due to leave on Tuesday so I quickly remedied that, though getting a riverside room was impossible. There is a rooftop restaurant/bar from which I can watch if the crowds become too much, they anticipate over one million people to attend the fun and games, and this is happening right outside where I am staying. How great is that!

There are other tributes to the river as well, some Holy, like Auk Ambok when the celebrants gather at the Temples at midnight and eat ambok (flattened rice) mixed with banana and coconut. There will be parades along the river featuring illuminated boats during the evenings and apparently everyone gives thanks to the moon in anticipation of a good harvest.

It all sounds pretty fantastic, I stumbled on it by accident and I have only been here for twenty-four hours. I will keep you posted.

Update: I popped out again to see what was happening. Balloon sellers, more food booths, some drumming and the biggest line dance I have ever seen, Cambodian style, there are hundreds of swaying bodies all along the river bank. I have learned a new word “fluvial” as in “fluvial activities”, rivery stuff? I’m sure somebody knows.

Sunrise over the Mekong this morning.

Sunrise over the Mekong this morning.

A section of the riverside park on the banks of the Tonle Sap.

A section of the riverside park on the banks of the Tonle Sap.

Dragon Boats.

Dragon Boats.

More Dragon Boats and look at that horror story of a new hotel in the background. Right at the confluence of the two rivers. Quite ghastly.

More Dragon Boats and look at that horror story of a new hotel in the background. Right at the confluence of the two rivers. Quite ghastly.

Food booth.

Food booth.

Another food booth.

Another food booth.

Another one. OK, enough food booths!

Another one. OK, enough food booths!

Kid's activity apparatus on riverside park.

Kid’s activity apparatus on riverside park.

A young entrepreneur, selling water.

A young entrepreneur, selling water.

Another view of riverside park, just so you know what I am talking about.

Another view of riverside park, just so you know what I am talking about.

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11 responses to “Bon Om Touk in Phnom Penh.

  1. Very colourful, I noticed one of the food sellers had a dragonfly brooch on, very apt. Another great experience great views from your room, keep safe x

    • I must confess that I missed the dragonfly brooch and I have to ask, why apt? They let me stay in my room for the first official day of the Festival, I do hope some of the photos are blog worthy. Such colours, such an atmosphere, fireworks and an illuminated boat parade. Lots to see and no time for scribbling.
      Oh, and Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

  2. Love the Dragon Boats and the colors…great views from your room. Thanks for sharing your new word, fluvial. It sounds mellifluous. Have fun…send more selfies!

    • It has been a particularly fluvial few days, so much activity I find it hard to drag myself away and take a nap! Glad you like new word, will have to find one for lake activities. Off to Battambang on Tonle Sap Lake in the morning.

  3. What an amazing phenomenon! And yes, ‘fluvial’ is a geological term describing rivers and their effects on the landscape. (Latin for river = ‘flumen’). It always amazes me how much of your excitement and enthusiasm you manage to convey in your posts – I am practically jumping up and down on the rooftop next to you! your photos are beautiful as always, I particularly love the vibrant colours of the people in the boats. Great stuff.

    • Yes, you are right, the colors are quite startling against the grey of the river in spate. I think I remember flumen from years of Latin, but didn’t make the connection. I’m happy that my excitement and enthusiasm shows through in the posts, surely anything less than might be construed as churlish. You may have detected that I direct my posts to my Mum, as the Senior Reader here, and the rest of the fam’ natch, but I’m glad you pick up on it.
      Keep jumping up and down, please.

  4. Fascinating account and photos of river pageant. Thankfully better weather
    than it was on the Thames two years ago!
    Mother

    • Lots of pageantry today on the river. I am currently sitting on the roof watching nine or ten barges cruising up and down the river with three story scaffolding supporting thousands of fairy lights in Cambodian designs. Temples, Gods and things. Very spectacular.
      Photos will be forthcoming, promise.

  5. Those dragon boats are simply amazing. What a time you are having, so exciting!

    • And they go so fast when they are racing but how to capture the excitement in a photo. Plus of course the races are in the middle of the river, a bit far away. Lets hope some of the photos are worth a second glance. Stay tuned.

  6. Lots of Fireworks here tonight too. Dragonfly brooch – Dragon boats connection! Look forward to the next post and photos.

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