Water festivals are a typical New Year’s celebration throughout Asia. Cambodia, however, celebrates a special water festival in November that marks an incredible occurrence of national importance – the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River. These two bodies of water are the lifeblood of the Cambodian culture and economy, and this natural anomaly is a major part of how Cambodians work their land.
For most of the year, the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, empties into the Mekong River system. However, when the rainy season starts around June, the water level in the Mekong rises, and the flow of water reverses to dump into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends at the beginning
of November, the Mekong drops and the current reverses again. Known as Bon Om Touk in Khmer, this festival
has been celebrated in Cambodia since the time of the Angkorian King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. It was intended to kick off the fishing season and give thanks to the river gods to ensure a plentiful catch. It is marked with a three day festival featuring fluvial parades, boat races, and fireworks.
The community at Trapeang Roung, home to Wildlife Alliance’s second Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) project puts on a celebration every year. Everyone in the village attends, including the Commune Chief and Provincial Governor. It is a fantastic outpouring of excitement, an important cultural touchstone for the community, and something that tourists and visitors can experience as well! This past November, a group of visitors had the chance to participate in the traditional boat races. Let’s just say – it’s an activity better left to the professionals! The boat races typically pit two boats against each other in a sprint race along a stretch of river. The community lines the banks to cheer on their neighbors and friends. They were gracious and welcoming in letting the tourists participate and generous with their support of the rowers – even as the team of tourists fell further and further behind! It’s not every day that they get to see a bunch of visitors make a foolish attempt at something they themselves are expert at, so it provided much curiosity for all the onlookers. For their part, the tourists had fun rowing and laughing at themselves as they lagged far behind. Most importantly, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the culture in a rural Cambodian village. This is an added benefit of the CBETs: when you go there, it’s not just a tourist destination or an ecological adventure, but a window into the world of the area’s inhabitants.