From the day I arrived in Siem Reap people were talking about the water festival. An annual festival, which has not taken place for the last 3 years! Held at the start of November in alignment with the beginning of rice harvest and the full moon, there are 3 days of holiday and most people observed them (holidays in Cambodia tend to be ‘optional’, possibly because there are a lot of them. For example, apparently there is one this week, unbeknownst to me I have agreed to start a new job on that day!).
Also during my first couple of weeks in Siem Reap I was staying at a guest house (Babel) on one side of the river and going to an office (Angkor Hub) on the other, I would walk to the office and part of my morning walk would be along the Siem Reap River. I could see workmen constructing a wooden platform but I wasn’t really sure what it was for. A lot of people were at the river in the morning; fishing or bathing or gathering up water plants. I later learned that it was a viewing platform for the water festival.
I was still a little unclear on what this festival would entail, I was actually visualizing one epic water fight! Ha! Then I discovered that it is actually a series of boat races. What was also unclear was any semblance of a schedule. Even with a local at the office, he found it hard to get any information from the Ministry of Tourism, so information evolved slowly through a series of informational posts on Facebook.
As it drew closer to the start of the festival, roadsides were paved, lights were strung up, marquees were erected and a buzz around town was evident. As mentioned, this was to be the first festival after several years without, so everyone was very excited. I even had a couple of friends visit from Phnom Penh because the festival there was even larger with a LOT more people and much chaos.
The night before the festival started, the river was lined with teams preparing for the big race; tents, boats and trailers everywhere. The food cavalry had rolled in too and there were food carts for at least a kilometre each side of the river. A friend and I took a stroll, not many other people were around so we had a chance to chat and have a laugh with some of the stall holders. Everyone was very excited about the days ahead.
Knowing roughly when the races would start, a few of us met at a nearby cafe for some lunch and then by sheer chance ended up with a prime position sitting on the river bank where we could see the finish line of the race. Each race consisted of two teams and they raced throughout the day in order to determine rankings for the following day. As each race passed, the crowd on the river bank got closer and closer together and people in the front row were in a very perilous position! No one seemed to mind. Nor were they at all embarrassed to openly observe (read: stare) at the foreigners amongst them 🙂
Later we took a walk and bumped into a friend from ABCs who I’d yet to connect with since returning to Siem Reap, he took us over to the food area of the festival. The Royal Gardens were transformed into a huge festival area with cultural demonstrations, alcohol tastings and open air beer ‘tents’, as well as a small market (in the event you were looking for a kettle, toaster or hair straighteners, it was all there!!). No stall, no drama; people walked around with massive platters of food and sold to people that were sitting on the grass or milling around in the festival area. We found a ‘table’ – some cardboard boxes on the ground, and promptly had our orders taken. Spring rolls were on offer to buy from the roaming food purveyors and in between the ear piercingly loud commentary from the ‘beer tent’ host, there was some great music. We separated from the group for some to freshen up and then were to reconvene in town for the farewell drinks of our friend and volunteer, Vicky. Vicky and I stayed around the festival a little longer and got to see some bokator demonstrations before making our way into town to meet up with the rest of our crew.
On the second day of the festival we returned to the river and the format for the day seemed to be knock out style. It was said that the winner of the Siem Reap boat races would go onto Phnom Penh to race the final day with the winners from races in the capital.
We changed vantage points a few times through the day and also had a good look at the viewing platform, which had transformed from a bamboo structure to have an elaborate tent with lots of satin and tulle, to accommodate all of the dignitaries. Our mission for the day was to eat from all of the stalls; corn on the cob, pancakes, sticky rice served in bamboo, ice creams made from local fruit, mystery meat on sticks and in the end some delicious barbecue chicken – it was a superb feast! In our wanderings we bumped into some bar staff we’d befriended (through regular patronage) and they had been given a couple of hours off work to enjoy the festival. One girl managed to drag me onto the ferris wheel and I think we managed to go for two rounds before I asked her nicely if I could get off!! The other two of my party, stayed firmly away and thought I was very brave (read: totally insane) for going on the ferris wheel.
My friends from Phnom Penh missed all of the fun but took advantage of visiting the temples while everyone else was preoccupied with the water festival. We all spent the remaining day of the holiday at a pool totally relaxing! It was a completely wonderful festival and it was extremely well run. Having studied event management and planned many events myself, I could not fault the management of this one, it was seriously impressive. I can also now understand why everyone was so excited, such a great vibe in the town and I look forward to next year’s festival!
A little history about the water festival, courtesy water festival event management:
The history of the Regatta Festival has been chronicled by the Cambodian people and also foreigners for a very long time. In fact, the festival is depicted in stones of the Angkorian period. There are three different histories to the festival, each quite distinctive.
1. According to the chronicle of King Jayavarman V11 in the ancient Academic Buddhist Institute, it is claimed, int he 12th century of the Angkorian Era, Cambodia had achieved peace and prosperity following Preah Bath Jayavarman V11’s success in a naval war with the neighbouring chams. The war victory (1177-1181AD) liberated Cambodia and is inscribed on the bas relief of the Bayon Temple and the Banteay Chhmar Temple. On the bas relief there are images of the navy with Preah Bath Jayavarman V11 bravely wielding a fighting stick and bow on the royal barge.
2. According to documentation written by Mr Trach Pen, the lay teacher of the Academic Buddhist College in Kampuchea Kraom Kleang Khet, it is mentioned that in the Longvek Era (2017BE – 1528 AD), Preah Bath Ang Chann 1 appointed Ponhea Tat to the position of King Tranh (District King) of Kampuchea Kraom Bassak District.
Racing at the junction allowed easier access for many provinces. The event because an annual tradition providing the navy with the opportunity to show its military prowess.
3. It is said that the water festival is one of the most spectacular traditional events. It is described as being similar to some festivals held in the north of Europe today. Some traditionalists claim the history of the festival lies in close connection with the history of Buddha, however, others translate that the festival represents a thanksgiving to the Gods of Water and Earth for providing the livelihood and welfare for the Cambodian people. One final translation relates to the festival following the tradition of Bahmanism and reflecting the daily lit elf the farming community.
The District King assigned a royal administration to defend his district. He divided his navy into three different types of boats with his troops trained in specific fighting styles.
Group 1 – The Vanguard: A boat that is similar in shape to today’s racing boat.
Group 2 – The Reserve Army: The rowing boats travelled two abreast.
Group 3 – Bassak Army: A large boat with a roof structure, fixed oars and a sail. This boat is similar in shape to the traditional used on the Bassak. The boat was used primarily to store the army’s supplies.
The navy was headed by the Kind on Earth and King Tranh who directed four ministers (Four Columns). During the period of the full moon in November that fe four ministers mobilised their troops for a campaign for one day and one night. The navy was ordered to a boat race on the river Peam Kanthao in Khet Kleang at a junction of he river.
The water festival is held on the full moon in November coinciding with the rainy season. During this time the lakes flood creating great seas and in turn it is time to harvest the rice. When the Mekong River swells during the period August to November, the waters flow into the Tonle Sap Lake from the south to the north Then in the low water season following November, the lake waters ebb and the flow reverses back from the Tonle Sap in to the Mekong River from the north to the south. This annual flooding of the Mekong River, with its sources in Tibet, provides the livelihood for many Cambodian farmers.
The silt that is carried by the flood waters is extremely fertile, providing rich resource for Cambodia. The crops produced in the low water season are essential to the welfare of the Cambodian People.
For this reason, the Khmer people choose the full moon of the Khe Kadek as the time to conduct the water festival, the procession of illuminated floats, the salutation to the moon and the Auk Ambok as a means to express their profound thanks to the Mekong River and Tonle Sap River.
The festival is usually held for three days i.e. the 14th and 15th of the waxing moon and the 1st of the waning moon. Festivities take place in front of the Royal Palace.
This festival consecrates Preah Changkaun Keo (the main parts of Buddha) in the Naga World and the Buddha’s footprints in the five directions detailed below. The Khmer people conduct this festival during the full moon of November, it is believed that great merit and prosperity will be provided to the country.
In Pali Teathavong scripture it is said that the four Preah Changkaum Keo are dedicated in four directions: Traitrowend Paradise, Naga World, Srok Kanthea and Toan Borakaling Roat in Pali Pheana Veara it si that that the footprints of Buddhalocated in five directions: SovannMealika Barapoat, Sovann Barapoat, Sovann Koda Barapoat, Yoonka Borei and Stoeng Neamatea. In th prose of Pali praise of Preah Bath ‘Yortha Bate’ it is also said that Buddha’s footprints are located in five directions as in Pheana Veara.
The Festival of the Sampeah Preah Khe and Auk Ambok:
Sampeah Preah Khe means the salutation to the moon. Auk Ambok means the offering of bananas and Ambok. This tradition is based on ancient Khmer legends in the first phase of Pali scripture of Baramathatibani Atha Katha Chariya Bedak, it is said that the Great Buddha was born on the full moon as Sasa Bandit of ‘Wise man born in the form of the Rabbit’.
Indra decided to test the faces by disguising himself as an old Brahman and begged for Sasa Bandit’s flesh as food. Sasa Bandit told the old Brahman to light a fire and once the fire was burring strongly he shook himself three times to let the insects perched on him to escape and then leapt into the flames. Fortunately the flames did not touch Sasa Bandit and the old Brahman hurried to carry him to the moon in his arms.He drew an image of the rabbit on the moon in Maneang Sela ‘plaster’ and wished the figure of the rabbit long life. Under the power of the Buddha and the resolution of Indra, the shape of the rabbit has appeared in the moon ever since. To reflect this belief the Khmer people celebrate it annually during the full moon of the Khe Kadek. They prepare special cakes, Ambok and bananas to salute the moon.