Tag Archives: Tonle Sap

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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A Trip down the Tonle Sap River

Ploughing our way at quite a rate of knots over what looks like a big inland sea, no sign of the banks on either side. We chugged along through a somewhat stagnant waterway after leaving the dock, houses on stilts, some donated by Americans. Saw one with a large placard outside thanking a family in Philly. It was narrow and the boat, slow. We have a film crew aboard, French, ladies, who set up their cameras on the bows, amateurs followed until there was quite a crowd up on the pointed end. Others situated themselves on the top, luggage deck, where they had a great uninterrupted view all around. We chugged on. Got to thinking that at this rate we will be in Phnom Penh by sometime next week, not the claimed six to seven hours. Eventually the stagnant river emptied out into a wider waterway and the thrum of the engines increased. There was a floating village with the inhabitants going about their daily business by boat. A large Catholic Church. Fisherfolk with their nets and lines, baskets and pots. A school donated by the Australian Government. All of a sudden we were out in the middle of this lake, the engines roared up to full power and we were off to the races. Spray everywhere, cameras protected, photographers retreated to the sanctum of the cabin. Film crew dismantled equipment, tripods, mikes, booms, cameras all packed up and retreated back to the dry. Should I mention the catastrophic wardrobe malfunctions as we pounded along faster and faster, no, better not. On we zoom, no sign of land, no sign of much of anything, so will pause and read book, well, Kindle app. Patrick O’Brian, still, of course. Treasons Harbour. (go away American spell checker).
Time passed (four hours) and we continued to roar on downstream towards the capital. The banks have changed their look, not the rather barren of further upstream, but now lusher, greener, more verdant. Different species of tree, not just the occasional palm, deciduous perhaps, certainly a mangrove here and there. There is the floating wild hyacinth again remembered from the Delta in great clumps, islands almost, I did mention that didn’t I, back in HCMC? More river folk activity too, bigger cargo boats, some cruise boats out of Phnom Penh. We slowed as we came to a stilted town, slowed right down so people could disembark. We didn’t stop, they jumped, bags and all into small boats alongside. There was a great collection of house boats as well as the houses on stilts, I had a quick pine for the houseboats of Sausalito. Then back up to warp speed for what is presumably the end run to Phnom Penh. Back to POB.
I love the universality of the wave. All down the river whenever we pass some boat or other with people in, or pass folk attending to their business on shore there is always a pause from whatever activity is being attended to and they all stand and wave wave wave. I am fortunate in my choice of fellow passengers, this is not a oh so cool crowd, and we all wave wave wave back. It’s really most delightful.
We are pulling into PP, there is an unexpectedly large Mosque. The houses have red roofs, were the Italians here, no, must be the French influence. If this town is as much fun as Vientiane then I am really going to enjoy being here, even for just a few days. Despite now being into hour seven of our progress I still have a happy stupid grin, what a great way to journey. None of the discomfort of plane or bus, free to move about at will, walk about, photograph points of interest. Marvelous. We dock.
A quick tuk tuk ride to the hotel and all checked in for three nights. Off to investigate the Foreign Correspondents Club which sounds intriguing for a late lunch then exploring this new City.
Thanks for riding the river with me.
Oh and btw, thanks for all the ATM comments and concerns. To answer the question, yes, I do have more than one ATM card, and from more than one country. Should take care of things.