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.