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Top 5 Places to Spend Cambodia’s Water Festival

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The Water and Moon Festival—most commonly just “Water Festival,” and “Bon Om Touk” in Khmer, is a three-day festivity dating back to the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. 

During the rainy season, the waters of the Mekong River are forced upstream and towards the Tonle Sap Lake. Bon Om Touk marks the time when a unique natural phenomenon causes a current reversal, with Tonle Sap’s direction returning towards Mekong and the sea.  

Thus, it is a celebration of nature’s providence, with many people giving thanks to the moon and to the Hindu river goddess Ganga. Additionally, it honors the historical victory of Jayavarman VII’s navy who went against invader warships attempting to sail up Tonle Sap. (Trivia: In Khmer, “Tonle” means freshwater, while “Sap” means lake!) 

The 2022 Water Festival will be celebrated nationwide on November 7-9. Read on to find the best places to be during the most anticipated annual event in Cambodia! 

5. Mondulkiri 

Tap into your inner environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast. 

Given Bon Om Touk’s observance of entity worship, this idyllic province in northeast Cambodia would be the perfect place for the adventurous and culturally intrigued to spend this holiday. It is home to the indigenous Bunong people, a people whose way of life is intimately tied to their ancestral lands. 

What’s there to do in Mondulkiri? Soar right above Bou Sra Waterfall at the Mayura Zipline, go bird-watching and enjoy the rest of the vibrant wildlife through a tour into the Seima Protected Forest, or walk side-by-side with elephants at the Elephant Valley Project where no elephant riding is allowed. 

It’s an ecotourism dream well worth the seven-hour ride from Phnom Penh (add an extra three hours if you’re coming from Siem Reap!), amassing close encounters with local fauna, immersion into village life and environmental conservation, and even trail-bike tours all in one charming province. 

Just as Bon Om Touk marks a fresh chapter for the dry season, a trip up here during the holiday may be the perfect reset if you’ve been spending most of your days in bustling cityscapes. 

4. Siem Reap 

The “current reversal” of our time: Tonle Sap flow mirrored in post-pandemic tourism. 

This legendary city is another one of the places where you’ll find key Water Festival events such as the boat races and Loy Pratip scheduled for local and expat spectators alike. While you may view these along the Siem Reap River, an extra special sight awaits those who will be at the festivities in Angkor Wat. 

Against the majestic, silhouetting prangs of the thousand-year-old temple, the waterside festivities are guaranteed to garner gasps of amazement from everyone present. 

Of course, a city like Siem Reap would have plenty more options for Water Festival vacationers to include in their itineraries apart from the classic activities. Pub Street will be alive as usual with performers such as stand-up comedy and live music, and plenty of establishments have announced Bon Om Touk specials, including Mad Monkey and The Keys by Tomoka. 

As Cambodia’s fastest-growing city, those who plan to be in Siem Reap this November 7-9 are in for a gorgeous comeback after the repercussions of the covid-19 pandemic. 

It’s the place to be to check out firsthand how the local business community and tourism sector have “built back better”—a modern take on Tonle Sap’s current reversal, if you will: as the Water Festival signifies the end of the rainy season, hopes are high that we’ll also be saying goodbye to covid-19, for good.

3. Sihanoukville 

In 2022, the fusion of local festivities and international commerce. 

The Water Festival in Sihanoukville this year happens to coincide with its hosting of the annual BIZ Fair on November 5-9, so if you’re up for coastal scenery and beach resorts, local festivities, and hundreds of entrepreneurial booths all for one holiday, then you’d better head south towards Preah Sihanouk Province! 

As one of the largest tourist destinations in Cambodia, you can expect to see similar activities in Sihanoukville as the above-mentioned in Phnom Penh, such as boat races and Loy Pratip. 

The city offers a diverse landscape with both sandy and rocky beaches, and a wide array of accommodation choices from beach huts adored by backpackers to luxurious, five-star resorts and casinos. You can even go snorkeling on the offshore islands. If you happen not to be a beach person but are curious about this coastal city, you can also opt to rent a motorbike and cruise through the nearby jungles and Ream National Park, which is home to over 200 different bird species. 

Just make sure to be prepared for the crowd, as the BIZ Fair is anticipated to draw over 500,000 visitors in a celebration of Cambodia and the entire Southeast Asian economic region’s robust socioeconomic growth. Keep in mind that the fair will be held on Pouy Chamtav Mao Beach. 

2. Kampot and Kep 

Best of both worlds, almost literally. 

Also found down south, the twin provinces of Kampot and Kep contain almost all Cambodia has to offer on a more laidback setting compared to that of major cities.  

Found east of Sihanoukville, Kampot is both a coastal and mountainous landscape with a wide shore facing Phú Quốc, the largest island of neighboring country Vietnam, and the Bokor National Park on the other side. If water activities are your taste, you can look forward to boating and rafting along a river winding through town, paddleboarding and kayaking, and enjoying tranquil waterfalls. 

Otherwise, there’s plenty of other scenery in the Kampot rainforest and the Bokor Hill Station, the site of a French colonial mountain resort built in the early 1920s that overlooks the neighboring province. You can also adventure further to see ancient ruins hidden inside caves in Kampot Kompong Trach, a district of Kampot Province that borders Vietnam to the east and Kep to the west. 

Kep, being the smallest province in Cambodia, is also a charming treasure of both seaside sights and colonial ruins. Visitors can choose to hike in Kep National Park and the nearby Rabbit Island, ascend the Bokor Hill Station, visit a butterfly reserve, or explore seventh-century cave pagodas. Others may troop to the pepper farms and salt flats for an up-close observation of local workers harvesting the region’s natural bounties. 

Having been founded as a getaway destination for elite Frenchmen at the start of the 20th century, Kep offers an almost disquieting and undeniably intriguing atmosphere. Throughout the town, you’ll still notice the remains of colonial villas that were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. 

Such an array of sights, experiences, and rich history make these provinces another prime choice for making the most of the Water Festival holiday—in fact, even three (3) whole days may not be enough to fully savor all that Kampot and Kep have in store. 

1. Phnom Penh 

The classic choice for a colorful Bon Om Touk. 

The capital comes alive in a special way whenever the Water Festival rolls around, transforming into a vibrant image of Khmer sportsmanship and camaraderie with colorful boat races at the center of the city’s celebration. 

Boat racing is a callback to the 12th-century river victory of Jayavarman VII, thus the picture you’ll see along the Tonle Sap in front of the Royal Palace are reminiscent of 800-year-old engravings found on Angkor temples. The competitions attract participants from all over the country who prepare months before the Water Festival, hand-carving their boat, training, and saving up for the trek to the capital. Spectators are never disappointed by the show of grit, determination, and passion shown by participants and their supporters alike. 

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