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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 29 Jan 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia


After visiting S-21 in the morning, Phnom Penh delighted us in the evening as the country celebrated Bon Om Tuk - the water festival.

Bon Om Tuk is one of the largest events in Cambodia and marks the end of the rainy season, occuring in November for three nights during the full moon. The festival is a thanksgiving to the Mekong River for rich, fertile land and abundant fish.

In Khmer Bon Om Tuk literally means 'the festival of the boat races'. Villages from all over the country send teams with their dragon boats to compete for three days of races which take place until sunset. Over 350 boats participate annually competing for a grand first prize of...100 dollars (around fifty pounds). That pot of gold is then shared between as many as 70 rowers.

We all made our way down to the waterfront. Sisowath Quay and the surrounding streets were closed off to vehicles and vendors had set up stalls selling snacks, beverages, 'magic potions', balloons and flags. The area was thronged with teeming crowds.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians flock to the capital from all over the country. As westerners we received some noticeable attention, especially Louis and I due to our height. We both stand at least a head and shoulders above the average Cambodian. Groups of teens nudged their friends, pointed to us and came to stare (upwards).

As evening fell the night sky was lit with an impressive firework display. My 'ooohs' and 'ahhhs' became a source of amusement for those around me. Cambodians evidently enjoy the display in silence. The river meanwhile hosted a parade of beautiful illuminated floats complete with tinny, manic southeast asian pop music.

It was fantastic to see everyone happy and festive. Such a chaotic and tumultuous history could easily become a deadweight on the shoulders of the Cambodians, but they do not dwell on the Khmer Rouge, the genocide or their current socio-economic troubles. Bon Om Tuk showed a different side to Cambodia, one which many people can miss travelling the tourist route from Phnom Penh and the horrors of the late twentieth century, to the glories of an ancient history at Angkor Wat.