Phnom Pehn hosts its annual Water & Moon Festival on 16th to 18th November 2013. People will travel from all over Cambodia and the world to celebrate the boat races and unique reversing waters.
“Lady how are you…this special day?” standing and greeting me like an old friend - a saffron robed monk gestures and pats the wall for me to sit beside him. We watch peacefully as the baseball capped boat teams zip up and down the Tonlé Sap like colourful centipedes - rowing in unison - kept in time by a skipper beating a rhythm with his ceremonial paddle. Each dragon boat is decorated with large eyes painted on the Naga (Serpent) heads carved on the prows - said to help them race better and representing fertility, rainbows and water. The excited villagers line the banks showing their support with flags and gusto as the rowers train for the big race with the traditional ‘fool’ on each boat keeping the onlookers amused with satirical jokes.
This historical Water Festival dates back to King Jayavarman II, the founder of the great Empire of Angkor and signifies the end of the wet season - a time for celebration rivaling the Khmer New Year in importance. The Monk smiles, leans forward and whispers “…this year our people we catch plenty big fish when waters change direction at full moon of Buddhist Calendar of Kadeuk…” he nods and I nod… but even after reading about this unique phenomenon - I can’t understand how waters can reverse - let alone into the mighty Mekong! “Ah…this year bringing us rich happy happy harvest… many fish and many more luck to our people - this year is good year…” After the tragic event of 2010 when many people lost their lives in a panic stampede on Freedom bridge and the last years festivals being cancelled - this year I can understand that Bon Om Tuk is extra special for the Khmer people.
I leave the Monk waving me goodbye as I wander off through narrow streets past the smiling lady who's half-hidden behind her giant wok of freshly skinned frogs as I mingle with the crowds following musical jingles into an alleyway of pungent fish stalls. Then it opens into what resembles a Victorian fairground with rusty rides and sweet laden stalls – a mixture of aromas fill my nostrils - good and bad. There amid rumbling motors boys and girls play amid screams of delight echoing from the top of the ‘small’ rickety ‘big wheel’ just held together by rusty bolts and odd curled metal. Younger children ride by waving from plastic toy cars and animals all simply stuck on a carousel base being pushed round-and-round by a fairground worker in a yellow vest. Everything is rusty, ramshackle and creaky but everyone’s having fun and the rides must be safer than they look – they’ve lasted so long!
Walking along to the riverfront through swirling pyramids of steam rising up from stalls as mouth-watering aromas of crispy blackened fish fill the air outside the famous Foreign Correspondents Club. Shuffling past pavement restaurants - which in Cambodia are just that - gingham cloths, wicker mats with comfy cushions spread out on grass verges or pavements. Sellers and dinners alike, sit cross-legged around the Royal Palace and waterfront in the humid sunlight drinking local alcoholic brews or strange herbal teas - often chatting till late in the night. Thousands of young and old fill both sides of the river: elegant Khmer ladies wearing dresses of red, yellow silk or satin; joyful girls dressed as fairy princesses with colourful hats or huge flowers perched in their shiny hair.
High-pitched music peels out from plastic speakers - sounds of Elvis, Salsa and Khmer mix into a tinny melody as crowds almost conger along the streets enjoying the party. I want to join in but don’t want to intrude so continue squeezing through the masses of smiling faces.
A medley of traffic including three wheeler bike-taxis with drivers, bicycles, squeaky 50cc motorbikes - some carrying a whole family of five perched precariously onboard jiggling through waves of people into a giant maze of colour. ‘Lady...lady... you like Coca or nice cold beer, you like…pleeeze?’ a handsome lad in an army type hat tries tempting me with an ice covered bottle with the familiar Angkor label…resisting with a smile – but knowing I’d return after taking photographs to enjoy a local beer or two!
Each morning, thousands more people from towns and villages all over the country arrive: farmers; fishing folk; orange, plum or saffron clad monks, fresh faced children and even some tourists. The rich and poor all descend on the capital Phnom Penh, lining the banks of the Tonlè Sap for fun, feasting and of course to support their local boat teams who are out to win the coveted prizes on offer.
As the sun sets on the final night the last boats pass by from the (FCC) Foreign Correspondent Club’s open air bar where we sit with cocktails complete with paper umbrella and cherries to toast the worthy winners of the grand finale and wish a happy harvest to all. The Khmer people are only sure the mighty Mekong will not flood its banks anymore this year when the best decorated boat performs the string cutting ceremony in the middle of the river to signify the end of the wet season.
Later as I look out from the window of my hotel before going to sleep, I watch the final fireworks explode as neon lights reflect in the dark liquorice waters below. Melodic lullabies echo through the emptying streets as the last ghostly images of decorated floats drift through the night mist as darkness calls the end of ‘Bon Om Tuk’ - Cambodia’s special water festival...
NB: This year Bon Om Tuk will take place on 16th, 17th and 18th November 2013 and is even more important to Cambodia because it's the first since the terrible events in 2010 when many people lost their lives on Freedom bridge. Now the security procedures have all been updated and improved to accommodate the crowds who come to Phnom Penh. I wish a very happy and fruitful harvest to the Khmer people to follow this special moon and water festival of 2013 and good fishing for all.
White Mansion Boutique Hotel (# 26 Street 240 Phnom Penh 12207) is an elegant colonial building, beautifully restored and modernised with a 4-star rating. It truly is a quiet haven away from the bustle of the city just a ten minute drive from heart of Phnom Penh. Complete with delightful swimming pool, Spa and business centre. 30 charming rooms with wi-fi, flat-screen TV and marble en-suite bathrooms.