The Cambodian calendar is littered with holidays and its Water Festival - or Bon Oum Touk - is one of the largest. For three days, locals flock from across the country to the capital of Phnom Penh to watch the colourful boat races take place along the Tonle Sap River.

November is an important month in Cambodia. Not only does it mark the end of the monsoon season, when the heavy rains abate leaving way for the dry season ahead, it brings cooler temperatures, high water levels and ushers in the fishing season. What better way to celebrate than a festival? And that’s exactly what they do here in Cambodia with the annual Bon Om Touk – or Water and Moon Festival.

What Water Festival is all about?

Following the Buddhist calendar, the event falls on the full moon of the month of Kadeuk (the eleventh month of the solar calendar). The full moon then is known as the Harvest Moon and is believed to deliver a bountiful rice crop – another reason to party, with the bright lights of the full moon illuminating the evening’s celebrations.

And if this isn’t reason enough to party, then the festival also marks the reversal of the Tonle Sap’s current, which feeds into the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, and is the only river in the world to boast this unique trait.

The Water Festival has been celebrated in Cambodia for centuries, with evidence found on etchings at Bayon and Banteay Chhmar temple walls. With its roots steeped in Angkorian times, the kings who ruled sent many naval forces to battle to protect the empire, with the boat races representing the force of the Navy and the victories they achieved.

This tradition has carried on until today – although the festival was dogged with trouble when in 2010 a stampede killed 347 people and injured a further 755, causing it to be cancelled for the next three years.

Villages and communities across the country spend the year sprucing up their boat – a long thin, wooden boat that can hold up to 100 people – and practising their racing skills on nearby waters before heading to Phnom Penh to battle against other boats on the water.

What to Expect During Water Festival?

Unlike Khmer New Year when the capital empties, during Water Festival people from across the country head to Phnom Penh, with an additional two million people crammed onto the streets for the races, fireworks and other celebrations that take over the city.

And on top of the boat races, there are several ceremonies that take place during Bon Om Touk to thank both the land and water for providing life.

Bandaet Pratip starts at 7pm and sees a parade of illuminated boats drift down the Tonle Sap river. Traditionally, Cambodians would make their own and release them on water near their homes, believing the boats take away any bad energy with them. This is still practiced in some areas but is not as popular as it was previously.

The Phnom Penh version sees a string of pretty illuminated floats presented by the various government ministries and organisations. This is followed by a spectacular fireworks display.

Sampeah Preah Khae takes place on the last day of the festival and is also known as the moon salutation. Cambodians will set up an array of offerings in the form of food, drink and incense in front of their homes at night before gathering at pagodas at midnight for the third ceremony, Ak Ambok.

Ak Ambok is rice fried in the husk before being pounded by a giant pestle. The husks are then removed and the rice is mixed with coconut and banana, and eaten when the clock strikes 12.

Three Day Celebration

Bon Om Touk lasts three whole days. Many out-of-towners converge on Tonle Sap, whole communities going on masse to enter their boats in competition.

People come from far and wide to join the celebrations. School is closed, and most workers go on vacation. Upwards of a million Cambodians gather at the river banks to celebrate; those who can't find hotel rooms often just camp out along the streets!

The colorful racing boats are arguably the main stars of the event. They have bright paint schemes, often with eyes painted on the prow to protect against evil. The biggest boats are over a hundred feet long, crewed with up to eighty oarsmen.

Unlike Western boat races, Cambodian boat crews face forward. Many boat crews are complemented with a colorfully-costumed lady at the prow dancing to the beat of the drums.

For the first two days, races are run with two boats each, with the big race happening on the last day, when all the boats take to the river to compete.

While the contestants pair off to compete in the middle of the river, the river's edge teems with boat crews practicing for their upcoming run, making for a brilliant display with their colorful shirts festooned with their sponsors' logos.

In the evenings, the festivities continue with carnival rides, traditional music performances, and dances.

A wholesome carnival atmosphere prevails for the Water Festival's duration - food and drink overflow in the streets, Khmer pop bands entertain the crowds, and the riversides are packed to capacity with punters cheering their favorite boats on.

The Legend of the Royal Water Festival

The Royal Water Festival takes place on the Tonle Sap River, across from the Royal Palace of Cambodia, at a time and place of natural, religious, and historical importance.

Reversal of the Tonle Sap River

The Royal Water Festival celebrates a rare natural phenomenon known as the reversal of the Tonle Sap River. In November, at the end of the annual monsoon, the Tonle Sap lake reaches its maximum size. 

As the Mekong River is at its minimum flow around this time of the year and its water level falls deeper than the Tonle Sap Lake, the Tonle Sap River and surrounding wetlands drain into the Mekong. 

As a result the Tonle Sap River (length around 115 km/71 mi) flows six months a year from southeast (Mekong) to northwest (Tonle Sap lake) and six months a year in the opposite direction in a system of extreme hydrodynamic complexity in both time and space.

Khmer-Hindu myths

Preah Mae Kongkea

The Ganges is the sacred river of many religions in India, especially the Hindus. As the Ganges does not flow through Cambodia, the Tonle Sap river has been considered the local sacred river. Though it is not a seafaring river, it is an important source of water for raising livestock and provides Cambodia with an abundance of silt and fish stocks. 

In Hindu mythology, Preah Mae Kongkea is personified as a young woman wringing the cool waters of detachment out of her hair to drown Mara, the demon sent to tempt Gautama Buddha as he meditated under the Bodhi Tree. In a similar way, the reversal of the Tonle Sap will provide the fishers and farmers with fresh water, food, and life. 

Making a small offering of bratip as a grateful sacrifice to the Preah Mae Kongkea is seen a good omen for happiness and fishing as a daily livelihood on the Tonle Sap.

Makara and Dragon boat races

Another popular Hindu legend concerns the theomachy of Makara and the goddess Ganga. This battle followed the accidental fall of one hair of the Ganges goddess, or "Kong Kea" in khmer. Her hair fell down from paradise to the center of the earth made the sea dragon or water-monster Makara or Makor in khmer, more powerful than any other animals in the world. 

Makor swallowed all the other animals and therefore the humans begged goddess Kong Kea for help, that she would come down to earth and take control over Makor again. Makor start swallowing the seven-headed dragon Mucalinda but did not succeed. Goddess Kong Kea asked Shiva, or Eyso in Khmer, to catch Makor in return of which she would marry him. 

Eyso came down to the earth and starter a battle with Makor. After three days of fighting, the battle was a tie. Kong Kea then hid the hand of Eyso using her hair to dry up the water. Makor, growing tired, and surrendered to Eyso, who used Makor as his vehicle to ride to goddess Kong Kea and marry her. 

Makor changed names to "Koch Jor Sey" which is related to "Reach Sey", the King Lion, protector of Kingdom of Cambodia. The dragon boat races can be seen as a reenactment of these mythological battles.


On the second day of the Royal Water Festival, a special commemoration of Lord Indra is celebrated. The reversal of the Tonle Sap suggests why a parallel could be drawn by the Khmer people with Lord Indra. Indra is the one who releases the water from the winter demon. 

This is the most common theme of the Rigveda concerning Lord Indra: he as the god with thunderbolt kills the evil serpent Vritra that held back rains, and thus released rains and land nourishing rivers. For example, the Rigvedic hymn 1.32 dedicated to Indra reads:

Let me tell you the manly deeds of Indra, which he first accomplished, bolt-weaponed,

He slew the serpent, opened up waters, cleft in twain the belly of mountains,

He slew the serpent on the mountain, with heavenly bolt made by Tvastar,

Like lowing cattle downward sped the waters, then flowed to the ocean.

King Barom Reachea I also known as Bormin Reachea in the year (1568 AD) is said to have seen in the dream the place of this battle between Indra in Vritra as the Tonle Sap River in front of the Royal Palace.

Military commemoration

Battle of Tonle Sap

The boat races are believed to have been held from the ancient times during the reign of Jayavarman VII in 1181 AD until now. It is said to commemorate the heroic example of the Khmer Navy who liberated their land from the oppression of their enemies, namely the Champa kingdom, in a battle which took place on the Tonle Sap.

Conflict with Đại Việt

In 1528 AD, King Ang Chan I ordered Ponhea Tat, commander of the Khmer navy in the Bassac District of Kampuchea Krom, to prepare the Khmer army to invade the province of Preah Trapeang (modern-day Tra Vinh, Vietnam), which was under the rule the Đại Việt under Mạc Đăng Dung.

Soldiers were divided into three groups, two land squadrons, and a third squadron on boats. Like the current race boat, called the Second Sailor, called the Combat Troops and the two rows of rowing boats in the form of a race boat today. 

And the third group, called Bassac battalion, is an ark, with a sailboat, like a sailboat, called the jungle boat, and a sharp shoot Long, there is a single roof overlooking the wall without using the wall, but at night, with a candlelight, a food basket for an army called the Bratip, a rice hunt from "Kampong Chhnang" to Khmer Krom in "Preah Trapeang" province Until the Cambodian navy won.

After the victory, King Ang Chan I set up a plaque and gratified a monk to celebrate the victory over Vietnam in southeast Cambodia. Every year he commemorated the victory with an on-water candlelight naval process at night to celebrate the victory and to thank Preah Mae Kongkea.

The word Loy Bratip in Cambodian is a combination of the word Loy in Thai language and Bratip borrowed from Pali language, thus Loy Bratip is equivalent to Loy Krathong in Thai.

Modern rituals


The Royal Water Festival, which lasts for three days, was recorded for the first time under the reign of King Sisowath in 1914 and follows a precise ritual. Dragon boats, from every major pagoda in Cambodia, come to Phnom Penh and compete for three entire days during daylight in elimination rounds until the final race on the third day. 

In the evening, at the sunset, around 6:00 pm, a prayer is said for peace to Preah Mae Kongkea and a candle is lit by the King. Following this prayer, illuminated floating boats parade on the Tonle Sap, accompanied by fireworks. The illuminated floating boats represent the various royal ministries of Cambodia.

Classification of the dragon boats

It is difficult to make a precise list of the various dragon boats involved in the race. The earliest French documents show boat carvings from the temples of Banteay Chhmar and the temple of Bayon. Khmer architecture is used to design various types of boats, such as:

  • The Makara boat
  • The Naga boat
  • The Naga head five boats
  • The Elephant boat
  • The Crocodile boats
  • The Hanuman boat riding giant
  • The Sovanmachha boat or Mermaid boat
  • The Swan boat or (Hong boat)
  • The Peacocks boat
  • The Garuda boat.

Boat Racing History

The Cambodia Water Festival is symbolic of many different occurrences in the history of Cambodia. The first boat racing event is dated as early as the 12th century in honor of King Jayavarman VII and his marine army who defeated the Cham people, the Southeast Asian Muslim ethnic group that had occupied Angkor in 1177. It also served as a venue for the annual naval exercises showcasing the prowess of the Cambodian Navy in Tonle Sap Lake. This tradition is depicted on the 800-year-old engravings in the Ankor Temple and the stonework at Bayon (near Siem Reap) and Banteay Chhmar (near the Thai border) featuring boats similar to the fleets that race on Tonle Sap today.

Another belief is that the Cambodia Water Festival is a celebration of the Seven-Headed snake. Legends say that the festival is a tribute to the Buddhist teeth of a nāga, whose daughter married an Indian prince and established the Kingdom of Cambodia, which became  lost in the depths of Tonle Sap when he was cremated. Nāga is a Sanskrit word meaning “snake” or “serpent” and usually refers to the King Cobra.

Before the Bon Om Touk, men in pagodas near the river prepare for the festivities by restoring canoes that had been used in the races for hundreds of years, or create new ones that they can use to compete. Canoes, sometimes called pirogues, are made from the trunk of the coki tree, which is resistant from rotting. Each boat is designed with a pattern symbolizing the guardian goddess and eyes at the prow, to protect against evil. This is a modification of the superstitious tradition of nailing actual eyes to the boat dating back before Buddhism.

In the morning after the completion or restoration of the racing boats and after three shouts of the crews, the canoes are then pushed into the river to head to the capital before the full moon. The best crews are chosen and being a member of the team to compete in the capital is an extremely high honor. If the team wins, this brings good luck to the families of the participants for the entire year.

The Legend of Buddhist Moon Festival

Legend of the Cheadok: The Moon Rabbit

In the Buddhist Jataka tales called Cheadok in its Khmer version, Tale 316 relates that a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon (Uposatha), believing a demonstration of great virtue would earn a great reward.

According to the Khmer version of the popular legend in the Sovannasam Cheadok, this rabbit is called Pouthesat. Every full moon, this holy rabbit would offer his life to someone who wanted to become a Buddha. 

One full moon, the god Preah Ean found out about this. He presented himself under the appearance of an old man, and asked Pouthesat if he could eat him. The rabbit agreed to give his life to the old man for food. 

But the old man said, "This rabbit has observed moral precepts for a long time, so he cannot be killed." Then the rabbit told the old man to make a fire, and then jumped into the fire to kill himself, so that the old man could eat him. 

But before he jumped into the fire, he quietly wished that he could stay in the moon forever after his death. According to this legend, we can still see the rabbit in the middle of the moon today.

Salutation of the Moon: Sampeah Preah Khae

The Sampeah Preah Khae (moon salutation) is a Buddhist religious festival which is dedicated to the moon which coincides with the Royal Water Festival. Sampeah Preah Khae takes place on the last day of the Royal Water Festival. 

Cambodians usually set up an array of offerings in the form of fruits that are popular with rabbits, such as Ambok, banana, coconut, yam or sweet potato, as well as drink and incense in front of their homes at night before gathering at pagodas at midnight for the third ceremony, Ak Ambok. 

They remember the life of Pouthesat the moon rabbit. The full moon determines actual date of the entire water festival. Cambodian people celebrate these two festivals around this time also because this is when bananas, coconuts, yam and sweet potatoes are in abundance. 

After the Sampeah Preah Khae ceremony, devout Buddhists gather at a pagoda at midnight for the rites associated with Ak Ambok.

Culinary traditions

Ak Ambok is the traditional rice dish which forms part of the Bon Om Tuk ceremony. During the festival, it is traditional to eat Ambok with coconut juice and banana. 

Ak Ambok is made by first frying the rice in its natural husks, then beating it in a pestle till soft, and finally, the husks are then removed and mixed in with banana and coconut juice for flavor. This mixture is eaten when the clock strikes midnight, or when the incense offered at the beginning of the gathering, is consumed. 

Ak Ambok is still to this day a very popular traditional dish and it is for sale everywhere during the Bon Om Touk festival.


In the middle of the night, household usually gather to burn incense first, and make small offerings such as ambok, coconut juice and bananas. 

Once consumed, adults usually take a handful of ambok to feed it into the mouth of younger children as a sign of care and goodwill. While holding their noses, children open their mouth and look at the moon usually making a wish, remembering the generosity of the altruistic rabbit as a model. 

Apart from these domestic rituals, Khmer people usually enjoy gambling as a group during the festival

Where to go?

If you happen to be in Phnom Penh during the festival (October or November – Date below), then head to Sisowath Quay and join the crowds to watch this colorful event captivate the country.

Expect hotels to be busy during this period so book ahead – especially if you want to check in to one of the hotel’s on the riverside, a prime location for the festival. And if you want to secure a top spot for viewing the races then reserving a table is advisable.

Popular bars along Phnom Penh’s riverfront include Le Moon’s rooftop terrace, offering perfect views across the Tonle Sap and Mekong confluence, and the end of the race. FCC and The Quay Boutique Hotel’s rooftop bars are other great places to catch the action in the form of the races, fireworks and looking down on the crowds milling about below.

If crowds don’t send shivers up your spine, then hit the streets and try and catch a glimpse of the boats from Sisowath Quay, or head across the Japanese bridge to the quieter riverfront on Chroy Changva peninsular and watch the races from there.

Siem Reap also holds smaller races on Siem Reap River for those in Temple Town during the celebration. Again, head to the riverside to join in the festivities.

Cambodia Water Festival date

Interested in joining Bon Om Touk Festival? Here is the date until 2024 for your reference.

Year Date Day
2020 30 Oct to 1 Nov Fri to Sun
2021 18 Nov to 20 Nov Thu to Sat
2022 7 Nov to 9 Nov Mon to Wed
2023 26 Nov to 29 Nov Sun to Wed
2024 14 Nov to 16 Nov Thu to Sat

The similar boat racing festival in Laos

Boat races are common all throughout Buddhist Lent, a full three-month period generally running from late August to the end of October. The exact dates vary each year, but most races are held on the weekend, start around noon, and end by sunset.

About mid-way through Buddhist Lent, the first major boat racing festival is held in Luang Prabang. Many others will be held later on along the Mekong River and other waterways. Then, the final race is in Ban Xieng Ngeun, just outside Vientiane. The first and last races are by far the largest and most important.

The Boat Racing Festival is also a time of other, accompanying festivities. There are bamboo rockets shot off to announce the beginning of a race, local markets that spring up and thrive, and other entertainment that goes on.

Since it’s the rainy season, the waters are high and good for boating, the farmers are not overburdened with work, and tourist season is at a low point. This set of circumstances, and the fact that people have been waiting all year for this, creates a lot of excitement about the boat racing events.

Here is the detail about Lao boat racing festival

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!


For many thousands of years, the art of stone carving has flourished in Cambodia. From the small statues made by local artisans to the famous, breathtaking carvings found at Angkor Wat, stone carving has become one of the country's most cherished art forms. Stone carving has been both a passion and a livelihood for many a Cambodian sculptor and has, in recent decades, survived war, genocide (in which many of the country's artists were murdered by the Khmer Rouge), and tyranny to be passed on to a whole new generation of artists.

The art of stone carving in Cambodia is one that has a very long, fascinating history which goes back to the foundation of the Khmer nation.

Within the scope of this article, we will learn more about the history of Cambodia stone carvings and the legends & myth of the stone carvings inside Angkor Wat


Magha Puja (also written as Makha Bucha Day) is the third most important Buddhist festival, celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka and on the full moon day of Tabaung in Myanmar. It celebrates a gathering that was held between the Buddha and 1,250 of his first disciples, which, according to tradition, preceded the custom of periodic recitation of discipline by monks.

On the day, Buddhists celebrate the creation of an ideal and exemplary community, which is why it is sometimes called Saṅgha Day, the Saṅgha referring to the Buddhist community, and for some Buddhist schools this is specifically the monastic community. In Thailand, the Pāli term Māgha-pūraṇamī is also used for the celebration, meaning 'to honor on the full moon of the third lunar month'.

Finally, some authors referred to the day as the Buddhist All Saints Day. 

In pre-modern times, Magha Puja has been celebrated by some Southeast Asian communities. But it became widely popular in the modern period, when it was instituted in Thailand by King Rama IV in the mid-19th century. From Thailand, it spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries. Presently, it is a public holiday in some of these countries.

It is an occasion when Buddhists go to the temple to perform merit-making activities, such as alms giving, meditation and listening to teachings. It has been proposed in Thailand as a more spiritual alternative to the celebration of Valentine's Day.


Pchum Ben is a time to remember, venerate, and present food offerings to one’s deceased relatives. Ancestors are honored going back as far as seven generations, and offerings are also brought for those without living descendants or in place of those who could not attend the ceremonies. 

The Cambodian Buddhists believe that every year the souls of their ancestors are released for 15 days. Pchum Ben marks the start of the journey of souls to purgatory, that in-between place that is neither heaven nor hell. The course of their journey will be decided by their karma and by the offerings made by their living relatives during Pchum Ben. This festival begins at the end of the Buddhist Lent. During this time, foods are cooked for the monks to generate merits that will benefit the dead.


The Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Khmer: Preah Reach Pithi Chrot Preah Neangkol; Sinhala: Vap Magula; Thai: Phra Ratcha Phithi Charot Phra Nangkhan Raek Na Khwan) also known as The Ploughing Festival is an ancient royal rite held in many Asian countries to mark the traditional beginning of the rice growing season. The royal ploughing ceremony, called Lehtun Mingala, or Mingala Ledaw, was also practiced in pre-colonial Burma until 1885 when the monarchy was abolished


The Khmer New Year - Choul Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language - is one of Cambodia's major holidays. Communities with roots in the Khmer culture, which includes most Cambodians and the Khmer minority in Vietnam, stop work for three whole days to return to their home communities and celebrate.

Unlike many Asian holidays that are set to the lunar calendar, the Khmer New Year follows the Gregorian calendar and is celebrated for three days, taking place every year from April 13–15. Neighboring Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos celebrate their respective New Year celebrations on or around the same date.

Note: ‘Khmer’ and ‘Cambodian’

When seeing or hearing the word “Khmer” such as Khmer New Year, Khmer Community, or Khmer Temple, many people are not familiar with the word and they ask what “Khmer” is?   In practice, the two words, “Khmer” and “Cambodian”, can be used to replace each other. For example, one might say Khmer New Year or Cambodian New Year; Khmer People or Cambodian People.  The exception is when talking about “Khmer Rouge” (it is not correct to use the word Cambodian instead of Khmer in this case).  (For information about the Khmer Rouge see: Cambodian Cultural Profile)

The word “Kampuchea” means a country of Khmer people.  Kampuchea can be translated as “Khmer country”. The French call Kampuchea “Le Cambodge”; the Khmer male is called “Le Cambodgien”; and the Khmer female is called “La Cambodgienne”.  A bit different from French, the English name for the country is “Cambodia” and the Khmer people are called “Cambodian.” However, the full definition of what is Khmer and what is Cambodian remains a large topic of discussion among Khmer or Cambodian intellectuals.


Lantern Festival is celebrated in China and other Asian countries that honors deceased ancestors on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar (usually falls around mid-February of Gregorian calendar). The Lantern Festival aims to promote reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. 

Originally, the holiday marks the first full moon of the new lunar year and the end of the Chinese New Year. In some other Asian countries such as Thailand or Laos, the festival is celebrated around late October or early November to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent & the beginning of the festive season.

During the festival, houses are festooned with colorful lanterns, often with riddles written on them; if the riddle is answered correctly, the solver earns a small gift. Festival celebrations also include lion and dragon dances, parades, and fireworks. 


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