Siem Reap, the town in northwestern Cambodia where we’re currently staying, is best known as a gateway to the Angkor Wat temple complex. But it has a life apart from tourists and archeological sites, and by chance, we got a great example of that during our first few days in town.
For years, Cambodia has celebrated a Water Festival (Bon Om Touk) over three days around the full moon closest to the end of the rainy season (usually in November). The festival was cancelled for the past three years for various reasons, so its return this year was a cause for great excitement. The biggest Water Festival takes place in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. But here in Siem Reap, from November 5 to 7, life revolved around the Tonle Sap river, the narrow waterway that runs through the center of town (and one block away from our guesthouse).
During the afternoons, crowds gathered on the riverbanks to watch boat races. Long, impossibly thin, brightly painted wooden boats with crews of at least 10 rowers raced up and down the river, to loud cheers from their supporters. The boats represented local neighborhoods or villages, whose partisans turned out in force. It was fun to watch—and even more fun to mingle with the crowd—though we never could figure out who was winning overall, since most of the races we saw seemed to involve only one or two of the many boats taking part (maybe they were initial heats or time trials?).
The streets that run parallel to the river on each side were closed to traffic and lined with food carts, vendors’ stalls (selling everything from cell phone plans to shampoo to tractors), and a small carnival. At night, the event became a festival of lights, as fireworks lit up the sky above the river, bridges and moored floats were decked with colored bulbs, and a dance party with revolving spotlights took place in a nearby park.
Cambodia has been through a lot of upheaval in past decades, and although the political situation is quiet now, the country is still very poor. So it was wonderful to see so many people out having a good time. Families flooded in from the countryside to enjoy the party atmosphere, run errands in town, and shop for better deals than they could find at their local markets. With all of the extra vehicles around and so many streets closed, traffic was snarled for days. Early one evening, a half-hour drive back from Angkor Wat took us almost an hour and a half because of the near-gridlock. But other than that, the festival was great. It also seemed very well organized, with lots of official cleaning crews picking up litter on the river banks (and a boat fishing floating trash from the water). We never felt unsafe among the crowds, and we didn’t hear reports of pickpocketing or other crimes, which have plagued the much larger festival in Phnom Penh.
It seemed a wonderful global coincidence that Cambodians were shooting off fireworks to celebrate the beginning of the water festival on the same night, November 5, that people in Great Britain were watching fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Day. November 5 was also the 12th anniversary of the night that Melissa and I met, and we thought it was darned decent of the Cambodians to throw such a spectacular anniversary party for us.