Looking at the history of great civilizations we can see that actually all of them were born near the great rivers, and their existence was tightly connected with those reservoirs. Babylonia with Euphrates and Tigris, India with the Ganges, China with the Yangtze, and of course Egypt with the Nile.nThe presence of rivers was a guarantee of many matters necessary for an empire’s prosperity. Regular floods provided irrigation of farmlands. Rich fauna was another source of food.
A river was also the most common way of transportation. The huge river allowed to quickly transport the heavy load, like the stone blocks in ancient Egypt. The conclusion is simple – the river gives life. It is obvious that they were also the objects of cults and were associated with the blessing and wrath of gods. Because water could take life as quickly as it could give it. Rivers were inducing man’s gratitude, fear, curiosity, and worship. This is why the celebrations dedicated to water were so common in almost every culture.
Khmer Empire lied by the Mekong, one of the greatest rivers in Asia, but there is another water reservoir that is more significant for Khmer culture – the Tonle Sap.
Tonle Sap (in Khmer ‘fresh large river’) refers to the freshwater lake and the 120 km river, which connects it with the Mekong. The reservoir was propelling the prosperity of Angkorean civilization providing food and irrigation. It still has a significant role in the Cambodian rice market. But the most unique thing about Tonle Sap River is that at the end of the monsoon season, the river’s flow changes its direction. It is also the time of the full moon. This phenomenon takes place at the end of October, and this is when Bon Om Touk is celebrated.
Bon Om Touk, also known as Water Festival, is one of the most important points on the Cambodian calendar. To explain the meaning of this holiday, we must go back to the 12th Century. This is when the Khmers defeated their enemies from Chama Empire after the boat pursuit. It was done on the waters of Tonle Sap, of course. This event became the symbol of the river’s blessing and it was honored for the first time in 1873 as the first Water Festival in Cambodia.
The celebration of the Festival is divided into three days. The first one is the opening day of the Royal Boat Race. We will stop here because the topic of Cambodian boats is quite a wide subject to explain.
To honor the Bon Om Touk, all villages and cities located by Tonle Sap send their best dragon boats and finest rowers to Sisowath Quay in Phnom Pen. All of them will participate in the famous boat races honoring the legendary race in 12thCentury. All boats are representing the ministry they came from and this is a very important aspect, showing how varied but united is the Cambodian community.
But what are those boats exactly and why we call them ‘dragon boats’?
We are all familiar with the legends of water creatures. In Khmer culture, there is a legend of Makor (or Makara). In Sanskrit, the word means ‘sea creature’ or just ‘dragon’. According to the myth, Makor was a dragon born of the hair of Goddess Ganga. Ganga’s origin comes from Hinduism, but she was also adapted to Khmer’s beliefs. Her presence in Khmer culture is depicted as the mother of water keeper such as seas, rivers, streams, lakes – all sources of water for the human and animal worlds. The same worship has been given to Tonle Sap River.
Makara became the most popular character depicted on the boat ornaments. There are also other mythical monsters, which inspires the boat builders. We can observe the boats showing the images of Nagas, half-men, half-serpents; Hanuman, the Monkey God, or various totemic animals like elephants, crocodiles, or swans. This clearly shows how Khmer, Hindu, and Chinese cultures affect each other. The boats are very long and they’re operated by 30-40 people. Cambodia can be proud of breaking the World Record in 2018 with the boat almost 90 meters long.
Another fascinating tradition is the boat dance. The dancer gives a performance on the bow of the boat during the race. It represents the spirit of the boat and encourages the crew. The biggest significance for the rowers and the audience is the presence of a female dancer. The winners are of course rewarded with money, food, alcohol, or cigarettes. The races are taking place on all three days until the final race on the last day’s evening.
After each day full of competitions there is a time for colorful celebrations. In the evening all boats are slowly floating on the water, beautifully decorated, showing the signs of the pagoda they came from. The whole show takes place with fireworks and light illuminations in the background. This event is called Loy Bratip and it is dedicated to the Goddess Ganga, we mentioned before.
Water is not the only object of worship. Water Festival is surrounded by a few Buddhist celebrations dedicated to the cult of the moon. In Buddhism, the full moon (Uposatha) is a symbol of mind cleansing. It is related to a legend of a rabbit named Sovannasam Cheadok, or Pouthesat in Khmer, who offered his life to the god Preah Ean at the full moon, as the sign of the oath.
At this time Buddhists honor the Sampeah Preah Khae (the moon salutation). It takes place on the last day of the Water Festival. People leave their offerings in front of their homes. Usually, these are the fruits that are popular with rabbits, such as Ambok, banana, coconut, yam, or sweet potatoes. After that, they are gathering at pagodas at midnight for the third ceremony, Ak Ambok, where they pay respects to Pouthesat. The event is also known for a popular group game, that makes the members laugh and use the mocking ceremony to make the members laugh until they decide to lose. Ak Ambok is also the name of a traditional rice dish served with coconut juice and bananas.
Cambodian Water Festival was celebrated year by year until the time of the Khmer Rouge. It came back in 1990. It is the biggest event in the whole Kingdom. An extraordinary tradition that combines the elements unique to Khmer culture with Hinduism and other Asian traditions. This year’s celebrations will start this week. If you ever get a chance to witness this incredible event, you should take it.