Khmer Water Festival

Noe’s off for the next week, and Lori and Riley are off until midweek. Most of our new favorite coffee shops are closed and the rental agencies have signed off until the 18th.

The streets are teeming with security personnel and Phnom Penh is on high alert due to rumors of an exiled opposition leader possibly returning.

Which can only mean one thing: Bon Om Touk is upon us!


You can tell Riley is very excited for all of this. Not walking yet, but excited, nonetheless.

Even with half of the businesses in town closed for the holiday, it’s still a great day to get out and about. The neighborhood around our place feels like a virtual ghost town. We know well where the action is and attend to avoid it until next week.

Today (Saturday), we’ve been advised to lay low and avoid crowds due to potential political unrest — something we never dealt with in Laos but have frequently dealt with in other places.

Once Independence Day makes way for the Water Festival, we should be in the clear.

But as in Laos, we’ll need to be hyper aware of our stuff. Anytime of year, bag snatchers are a real problem here. During festival time, however, the snatchers focus their efforts even more, particularly with foreign-looking barang like us.

Many of the city’s largest construction sites have ground to a halt for the holiday. Most have not.

I’d venture to say it’s the difference between local and foreign companies — most being foreign (i.e. Chinese) here in Phnom Penh.

Chinese construction workers never seem to rest. When they do, they sleep onsite. Worker housing in many cases is little more than a small corner of freshly-laid concrete slab and a light bulb overhead.

Some of the city’s largest unfinished high-rise projects have been going on for years.

It’s also a great day to explore the surrounding neighborhoods. Today, we take a long walk through BKK3, strolling but always looking for potential future homes, of course.

Lori and I would love to live in an old shophouse in one of these neighborhoods. There just don’t seem to be too many on the market, at least the English-speaking market. Those that are, are either renovated and quite expensive, or too small for our needs.

It’s easy to look at one of these three-story shophouses and think, that’s plenty big! But when you take into account the fact that the ground level is often nothing more than a garage and kitchen and the top level is a terrace and laundry-hanging area, you’re left with one narrow level with maybe two rooms, if you’re lucky.

Last night, right after putting down Noe for the night, there was a substantial fireworks show launched from the river, marking the beginning of a week of celebration.

Noe’s been all about “curtain calls” lately, thinking up one reason or another to summon mommy and daddy after he’s been put down for the night.

It’s hard enough to get him settled without 20 minutes of boom boom boom. I know he would love to see the fireworks, but by the time he was settled in bed he’d already gotten up from bed twice (for water, to use the bathroom, etc.). As I was putting him down a third time, the fireworks started. Fortunately, he was tired enough to be satisfied with an “it might be thunder” answer.

The next two nights, he wised up. I let him stay up to watch the first ten minutes, which seemed to nip the curtain calls in the bud…for now.

We can see the firework displays from our balcony and our bedroom as well. After watching from the confines of our bedroom, we moved the party outside.

Noe loves looking at the city lights from our sixth-floor balconies. We’re currently staying in a section of the city with few other buildings the size of ours, which has become increasingly rare here.

That means, we have a nice, unobstructed view of downtown facing north, and also facing east down Sihanouk Boulevard.

The lit up pagoda-looking structure is Independence Monument, with NagaWorld 2 casino whose entire western facade doubles as a jumbotron the length of a football field. Today, it’s proudly displaying the Cambodian flag.

Fortunately, we have dark curtains in our room.


Saturday was Independence Day. Sunday is the first official day of Khmer Water Festival. It’s also the first chance we get to see the light boats on the river.

Bon Om Touk traditionally marks the time when the Tonle Sap River (a Mekong tributary) reverses course. During the rainy season each year (May/June to Oct/Nov) the mighty Mekong River swells from the rains, feeding the Tonle Sap and filling the Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap.

As the rainfall begins to decrease substantially in the fall, the level of the Mekong River decreases and the flow of the Tonle Sap reverses, feeding the Mekong.

The height of festivities lasts for three full days. True to its name, the Water Festival’s focus is squarely on the water. Millions of Cambodians gather along the banks of the Tonle Sap, which flows through the center of Phnom Penh, to watch traditional boat races followed by a light boat parade.

On the last day of the festival, the king takes his bedazzled seat on the bank to preside over the boat racing finals.

Not knowing quite what to expect, Lori and I think we’ll scout it all out before bringing the kids. We put the kids down, pass the baton off to the sitter, and take a Grab ride down to the river.

I spring for a Grab car over our usual tuk tuk, wanting to avoid sucking fumes in gridlock. We’ve heard horror stories about the crowds (including a stampede that killed more than 300 people on a bridge a decade ago), but our ride is quick and painless.

A coworker of Lori’s recommended viewing the light boat parade from Juniper Gin Bar, a 1920s Art Deco sky bar on the 12th floor of a hotel a block off from the water.

It was an excellent recommendation, with local craft beer on tap and an extensive Seekers Gin cocktail menu (the local craft gin distillery here).

After drinks, it’s back down to street level. Crowds along the water front seem surprisingly tame for what we’ve heard, though a few locals have also told us to expect smaller crowds this year on account of the security warnings and potential for unrest.

So far, so good.

Our first choice for dinner is closed, so we grab dinner at another place a few doors down. Afterwards, we hit the other recommendation for watching the boats: 5 Drunk Men.

Just a bit different experience from Juniper Gin Bar…

At street level, we follow the signs for 5 Drunk Men, which leads us down this neon lit side alley.

Suddenly, the alleyway ends with no obvious way in. No signage, just a very large Budweiser can built into the wall.

We turn around and retrace our steps. We encounter a Cambodian guy on our way out who insists the entrance is at the end of the alleyways.

Shall we try pushing on the beer can, perhaps?


The atmosphere was akin to an all-male college dorm on a Thursday night, but we stayed anyway — for the views and cheap draft beer.


Morning brings a Skype with both sets of grandparents and a low-key day wandering around with the boys.

After naps, we head to Riverside, once again, to partake in festivities. This time, with the boys.

We can tell the festival is ramping up, as the crowds are about double the night before.

We try to grab a seat at this place, but all seven levels of bars is packed.

Well, that’s not entirely true. A huge section of the second highest bar is completely plastered with “Reserved” signs — not what I wanted to see after ascending six flights of stairs carrying a 3.5 year-old. We couldn’t even sit for a ten minute rest and quick drink.

I voice my displeasure with the staff, to put it lightly, before making our way back down to street level.

A few minutes later, the fireworks show starts. We join the rest of Cambodia on the quay to took in the show.

On the way back, we grab a burrito for take-away at our favorite Mexican joint in town [so far]— Cocina Cartel.


Another holiday, another big walk about town. This morning, we take a long stroll up the road to Phnom Penh’s historic and recently restored Central Market.

The Art Deco structure is a really cool piece of architecture. Having only viewed it from afar until now, I’m struck by how small it feels inside.

Compared to other markets in town that we’ve visited, it doesn’t feel as massive as I was expecting. I guess I was expecting a sprawling multi-level market along the lines of Hanoi’s Dong Xuan, which this is not.

It’s also very clean, orderly, and spacious, which does not fit with my experience of Southeast Asia central markets. Furthermore, the entire central hall is nothing more than a handful of jewelry counters.

But it’s worth a visit for the structure, the history, and the fresh market that skirts the main building.

On the upside, we did find diapers for Noe at nearby Sorya Center. Noe’s been 90% potty trained since January, but still has the occasional night time accident. Since our mattress protector’s in freight, we’ve decided to play it safe.

The deal on this particular day is if he’s going to keep using diapers, he’s at least going to have to carry them home.

A brilliant parental tactic or an unnecessarily cruel walk of shame? Honestly, I’m kind of on the fence.

In other news, this place…

Tuesday evening finally brings some boat racing!

A drink and dinner on the river watching the boats sounds good to us, but so far we haven’t found a place in Riverside where you can do that. Koh Pich (Diamond Island) looks like a good bet, so we head there.

The main bridge is closed to vehicle traffic, forcing our tuk tuk to drop us off a mile from the action. We weren’t planning on a big walk, but on the positive side it gives us a chance to check out the island, which, in all honesty, doesn’t have a lot going on.

There is, however, a sprawling and jam packed amusement park on the island which we choose to forgo this time around (a week later, it closed permanently — oh well, we’re not really amusement park people, anyway).

We finally arrive on the north side of the island where I’d seen a number of local bars on Google maps. Deep down, I was hoping for a string of basic open-air bars right on the river along the lines of the Mekong Zone in Vientiane.

But no. The area is a string of a dozen identical looking Chinese restaurants set back about 50 meters from the river.

Fortunately, there is a nice river walk along the river that was perfect for watching the races.

After a good long while of taking in the event, it’s still nearly impossible to pull Noe away from the action.

After sunset, the racing boats quickly disappear and Noe’s ready to eat (along with the rest of us). We pick the most Khmer-food-looking restaurant of the bunch that also has a clear shot of the river and hunker down for some dinner, beers, and for one last fireworks show.

Another long walk back to the apartment, but really we have no other choice, as Sihanouk Blvd. is closed to traffic…most traffic. Of course, there are always those who think the rules don’t apply to them.

To get from Diamond Island to the mainland, we cross the stretch where, in 2010, 347 people died (and another 755 were injured) in a human stampede. At that time, there was one tiny little suspension bridge often referred to as the “Toy Bridge” here, creating a massive bottleneck during festival time.

A decade on, there are now two twin concrete bridge spans to accommodate the crowds. Still, it’s a sobering experience crossing on this particular occasion, and we can’t help but remain cautious of our surroundings.

Coming over the crest of the bridge, we get our first taste of what we’re in for on our journey back to the apartment, which is located 2 km dead ahead. Something tells me this is going to take a while.

6 thoughts on “Khmer Water Festival”

  1. Love reading about your venture – very different from the usual travel blogs, n the kids in tow gives it a unique perspective – lol, loved the “cruel walk of shame ” comment! Will keep an eye out for the water festival for next year on my return to PP

    • Thanks for the kind words, Barry! And yes, definitely keep an eye out for the water festival next year. On a regular year (minus political insecurity) apparently millions line the banks of the river to watch the races, and it sounds like quite a spectacle.

  2. Shirley Northcraft

    No wonder you are in such great shape with all your walking and packing kids. Noe loves boats like his daddy.

  3. Thanks for taking us to the water festival, looks like a lot of family fun


Leave a Comment