In case you are wondering why I have been so quiet these last couple of days, I was caught up in the festive mood of the Bonn Om Touk or Boat Race Festival in Phnom Penh.
The Bonn Om Touk is celebrated every year in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (in a smaller scale) to mark the end of the rainy season and reversal of the water from the Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong and Tonle Bassac rivers. It is probably one of the biggest events in Cambodia, attended by millions of Cambodians and foreigners for 3 whole day. Due to this annual “pilgrimage” of people to Phnom Penh, many city dwellers take the opportunity to leave the city to escape the noisy crowd of people.
This year, about 4 million people from various parts of the countryside came to the city, many of those have never set foot in Phnom Penh before. There were more than 500 boats, beautifully hand painted, participated in the race. Some of the boats could fit more than 50 rowers, all dressed in bright coloured t-shirts and shorts, a pale version from the traditional costumes previously worn. Nevertheless, the colours were eye-catching from a distance. Many of these long wooden boats have travelled far from the villages from all over Cambodia and those chosen to row were needless to say, proud and excited.
A friend of mine came to visit me during this time and for three days, we were caught in the massive crowd of people all over the city. Road blocks were everywhere which forced us to walk for miles to get from one point to another. I didn’t really mind as it is usually the best way to take photographs of the whole camaraderie, often seen on the streets. My poor friend though had to drag her luggage all the way to the hotel. A month before, I had booked a hotel which overlooked the Tonle Bassac river in order to catch a good glimpse of the boat race as well as the firework display and illuminated floats at night.
This is probably the best time for tourists to visit Phnom Penh due to the countless number of street vendors all over the city. One can sample different kinds of street food (if you have a strong stomach and adventurous enough to try all sorts of strange nibbles) as well as buy all sorts of local knick knacks. Men, women and children took the opportunity to sell food and handmade souvenirs. We managed to try the omnipresent boiled duck eggs with the foetus intact. To be honest, it wasn’t our cup of tea. The sight of feathers attached to a foetus which has not even developed wings was too much to bear, even for those who possess eclectic taste buds.
One of the highlights of the event was when we took a tuk-tuk ride to the Chruoy Changvar (across) side of the river. That was where we found the real action, away from all the tourists. We witnessed how the rowers prepared their pre-race celebration; singing, dancing and feasting on simple local food together. We finally got into the spirit of the whole thing when we were invited to partake in the celebration. My friend enjoyed dancing with them, much to their delight.
I of course, ended up taking more than 1,000 snap shots of people doing different things. One thing I have noticed is that it is a celebration for everyone. It doesn’t matter where you come from, whether you are rich or poor, or if you are able-bodied or not, everyone seemed to be having a good time with very limited means. Many of these people from the villages were happy to put up their hammocks which they slept on for the 3-day celebration.
There was a feeling of communal spirit where women and children prepared tonnes of food for the rowers. It was fascinating to see these people with huge smiles and grins on their faces despite having to put up with poor conditions as opposed to our comfortable hotel suite with balcony view of the river.
As soon as it became dark, without any warning, we were rudely startled by the first burst of fireworks into the dark sky with the full moon on the background. The fireworks also marked the start of the light floats or pratip, sponsored by different government ministries.
After three full days of dodging and avoiding masses of people, I was in a way glad to return home. It was fun while it lasted and I will not hesitate to attend the event again next year.
For those who are interested to catch this event, do book your hotel reservations way in advance to be guaranteed a room at the river front hotels. It is an event not to be missed.