Cambodia's Water Festival

by Christina Gosnell, May 2, 2002 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

The Tonle Sap or "Great Lake" as it's called is more than just a body of water giving life to Cambodia and Southeast Asia. The Tonle Sap represents a people's identity and way of life for the thousands of Cambodians who call the riverbanks home. These people float in boats that are both homes and businesses along the muddy waters day in and day out. And they give to the water as it gives to them.

The Tonle Sap is one of the most fish abundant lakes in the world and the silt deposits left behind by the annual floods have created fertile ground for agriculture. It's no surprise that one of Asia's greatest ancient civilizations developed near this lake and today much of Cambodia's livelihood still depends on its output. So dependent are Cambodians that the government vigorously enforces fishing bans from March to November. Many people depend on the Tonle Sap and its ebbs and flows to maintain life and everyone in Southeast Asia recognizes this fact of life.

Along the banks of the Tonle Sap, people have celebrated the river's gifts for centuries. People celebrate its change of flow and welcome the swelling banks that bring in good fortune for families of fishermen. During the rainy season the Tonle Sap reverses direction, flooding the lake, increasing its size almost tenfold, making it the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia. And the people along the banks of the Tonle Sap find good reason to celebrate their Great Lake and take joy in its natural changes. The Tonle Sap is the only waterway in the world that flows in opposite directions at different times of the year. Once an arm of the sea, the Tonle Sap is a true natural phenomenon.

One of the largest festivals of Cambodia revolves around the Tonle Sap. The three-day Water festival of the reversal of the waters of the Great Lake is celebrated in October or November depending on when the waters reverse and flow back into the Mekong River. Boat races, the largest part of the festival, are held at the capital, Phnom Penh. Each village has the opportunity to join in the boat races and usually they do. The boats are usually dugout canoes with a prow and stern that curve upward. The boats are elaborately decorated and carved to represent the village. The prow is painted with a large eye like those that decorated the war vessels of ancient times.

A boat can have as many as 40 rowers. Pairs of boats race each other for the first two days. A race including all the canoes takes place on the last day of the festival. The purpose of this race is to make the god of the river happy so that there will be many fish and the rice crop will be plentiful. The Water festival, while celebrating the reversal of the waters, also marks the beginning of the year's fishing season.

Up to a million people from all walks of life and from all over the country flock to the banks of the Tonle Sap to watch the boat races and to celebrate the Tonle Sap. With the city filled to full-capacity at this time, it's no surprise that it takes on a carnival air and feeling felt by everyone. Live concerts are held, food stands are set up, and children and adults alike take rides on ferris wheels to celebrate the joy; at night, fireworks light up the sky and people dance in the street. People from the countryside throughout Cambodia come to the festival, many traveling down the three rivers that run through the city. Some come to race their long, hand-carved boats. Others come to see the three days of boat races and take part in the festivities or to take advantage of the many things for sale. This is Cambodia's version of Mardi Gras and many throughout the world look forward to attending just the same.

Just like at Mardi Gras, the crowds at the Water festival are huge. To contain thousands of festival-goers, police barricades stop motorized traffic, letting only bikes and people on foot through. Because it is a festival, school is canceled and many workers are off work. This large crowd of people fills the streets of the city within ten blocks of the Tonle Sap and the Royal Palace and the city explodes with excitement.

The Water festival also coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. The Cambodians believe that the full moon is a good omen which promises a bountiful harvest. On this night, people gather to give thanks to the moon and to pray for the upcoming season. Special food is prepared for this occasion that includes fruits, vegetables and Ambok-a Cambodian specialty. Worshippers light candles and burn incest while offerings are given. The chief priest lights the candles and as it drips on the banana leaves spread beneath the candles, predictions are made. Cambodians believe that the shape of the melted wax created on the leaves, predicts the harvest of the coming year. But whatever the prediction, it does not dampen the spirit of the Water festival and people excitedly look forward to the upcoming fishing season and giving thanks to the ever-nourishing waters of the Tonle Sap.

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