“More than 300 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a stampede at an annual water festival in Cambodia that the prime minister on Tuesday called the nation’s worst tragedy since the murderous Khmer Rouge regime more than three decades ago. Witnesses here in the capital said the stampede began Monday night when people panicked in a dense crowd on a small island close to the shore of the Bassac River. Hundreds of people tried to escape over a short suspension bridge. Many died of suffocation, were crushed underfoot, or were electrocuted by loose wires. Many drowned when they leapt from the suspension bridge into the water.”
The Cambodian Water Festival (variously spelled in the original Khmer as Bon Om Touk, or Bon Om Thook, or Bonn Om Teuk, or Bon Om Tuk) takes place once a year, on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk (usually in November). It celebrates a major natural occurrence: the reversing flow between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong River.
For most of the year, the Tonle Sap empties into the Mekong River. However, when the rainy season arrives in June, the Mekong rises, reversing the flow to dump water into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold. When the rainy season ends in November, the Mekong drops once more, allowing the current to reverse again, emptying the excess waters of Tonle Sap back into the Mekong.
This natural occurrence is celebrated in Cambodia with three days of festivals, fluvial parades, boat races, fireworks, and general merriment. Then as now, Tonle Sap is a major focus of life for many Cambodians. It’s a source of livelihood for fishermen and farmers alike – it’s rich in fish stocks, and the silt deposits left by the floods fertilize the fields. No wonder Cambodians have celebrated Bon Om Touk for centuries – it’s a way to give back to the river that’s given them so much.
Bon Om Touk dates back to the 12th century, to the time of the Angkorian King Jayavarman VII. The Water Festival was celebrated by the King’s Navy to kick off the Cambodian fishing season – the fluvial festivities are meant to keep the river divinities happy, ensuring a bountiful harvest of rice and fish for the year to come.
A competing story holds that Bon Om Touk was a way for the King to prepare his navy for battle. At Bayon near Siem Reap, naval battles have been carved into the stonework, depicting boats not that much different from the boats that race on Tonle Sap today. Three ceremonies underpin the entire Bon Om Touk celebration:
Loy Pratip: an evening fluvial parade, featuring beautifully-illuminated boats lighting up the waterways. Government institutions sponsor each of the boats on parade.
Sampeas Preah Khe: the salutation to the moon. The full moon is supposed to be a good sign for the coming harvest, which is why Cambodians make sure to give thanks to it on Bon Om Touk, and pray for a bountiful harvest ahead.
Auk Ambok: at midnight, celebrants gather at temples to eat ambok (“flattened rice”), a holiday rice dish. Ambok is simply rice fried in the husk, pounded to remove the husk, and mixed with banana and coconut.