Since the 12th century, boats have raced down from the Japanese Friendship Bridge to the finish line at the Royal Palace in pairs, all in celebration of the end of the rainy season and the flow of the Tonlé Sap River reversing its direction. This is known as the Bon Om Touk water festival in Cambodia, which takes place annually for three nights in November.
The festival dates back to Angkorian king Jayavarman VII’s naval forces’ defeat of his Charm rivals. But the festival has been on a hiatus since 2010, when a stampede resulted in the death of close to 350 people. Floods that resulted in unchartable waters in 2011 and 2013 resulted in the race being cancelled. This was followed in 2014 by the death of King Norodom Sihanouk. In 2015, low water levels made it impossible for the race to take place.
Finally returning to Phnom Penh this year on Sunday, 13 November, attendants made their way to the country’s capital. This was much to the delight of locals from the region and other provinces as they watched from the banks of the river. Armed forces were deployed to ensure security, and concerts and stalls from different provinces showcasing a myriad of products were part of the festivities.
Tourists from afar were also in attendance. The Minister of Tourism, Thong Khon, had projected that a minimum of 2 million people would attend the event. With 259 boats racing, the event commenced with traditional drummers at the start of the race. King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen were also there, along with other officials, all of which resulted in the event being a resounding success.