When the River Reverses Its Course: The Ultimate Thanksgiving Observance

 

Every year in the fall when the Tonlé Sap (the Sap River) reverses its flow, Cambodia erupts into the biggest celebration. For three days in November, the country descends on Phnom Penh for the annual Cambodia’s “thanksgiving festival.” The Tonlé Sap is part of Boeung Tonlé Sap, the lake and river system that stretches across the heart of the country. The French refer to Boeung Tonlé Sap as the Great Lake. The Tonlé Sap links the Mekong to the Great Lake in Phnom Penh, a drain between the two. From May to October when the southwest monsoon brings the rainy season to Cambodia, the Mekong swells. The Mekong rises so fast that not all its water can flow south into the sea. Instead, some of the water forces the Tonlé Sap to reverse its direction, flow north into the Great Lake, and flood its surrounding forest and land. But when the dry season arrives and the Mekong’s level drops, the lake empties its water via the Tonlé Sap back into the Mekong and flows south to the sea. As a result, the Tonlé Sap flows half the time from southeast to northeast and the other half in the opposite direction.

As the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Great Lake is a fishery hotspot and one of the largest catches in the world. Its biodiversity is second only to the Amazon. The lake has been sustaining the Khmer race since the beginning. More than 70% of the country’s protein intake comes from the lake. It also feeds our neighbors, who import thousands of tons each year as well. And it’s not just fish, the flooded land surrounding the lake becomes a fertile ground for the country’s rice production. The Great Lake is the rice bowl of the country. The Great Lake plays a vital role in Khmer culture, which is reflected in our belief, cuisine (we eat 140 pounds of fish per capita annually), livelihood and tradition. Its importance can be found on the bas-reliefs of our medieval temples. It is believed that the Khmer Empire would not have grown as prosperous as it did if not for the Great Lake. Angkor, the old capital, sits on the lake’s northwestern shore.

Water, in Khmer cultural belief and tradition, represents the primordial water of the Sea of Creation surrounding Mount Meru. Water plays a prominent role in all our religious rituals. We believe that water is essential to the cleanliness of not just our physical, but our spiritual beings as well. The lake and the water are so impossibly intertwined with Khmer lives that the biggest festival in the country is dedicated to both. The festival is called Bon Om Touk, Ak Ambok, Sampeah Preah Khae, Ning Bandaet Pratip, which also marks the start of the fishing season. The name is shortened to Bum Om Touk in Khmer or the Water Festival in English. The festival has been celebrated for centuries, but the Om touk (boat race) portion was added later in the 12th century under the reign of King Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1218) to commemorate the naval battle on the Tonlé Sap between the Khmer and the Cham forces, in which the Khmers triumphed. The boat race became part of the festival in subsequent years as a naval exercise.

The festival falls on the full moon of the Khmer month of Kartika (November on the Gregorian calendar). The festival, including the boat race, is celebrated all over the country, but the biggest race, called the royal boat race, is held on the Tonlé Sap in front of the royal palace in Phnom Penh. Villages from all over the country spend the year getting their boats ready for the race. The boats, low long and thin, look just the same as the boats on the temples’ friezes. Each boat is rowed by as many as 70 men and women. This year, more than 400 boats competed, 11 sank, and 115 rowers had to be fished out of the river. The final race finishes at 5 p.m on the last day of the festival. The royal boat race was cancelled in the 1970s and 1980s when the country was embroiled in the civil war. It started again in 1990.

On the night of the second day of the festival, it is time for Bandaet Pratip (illuminated floats) ceremony. Big, brightly illuminated boats from governmental/non-governmental agencies drift up and down the Tonlé Sap. For the rest of the population, small handmade floats are lit up and released on rivers, lakes, and any body of water to thank the Goddess Ganga, who flows down from the heavens so that we can purify our bodies and souls. Of course no part of the Ganges is in Cambodia, but we consider all bodies of water to be the embodiment of the goddess herself.

The last day is Sampeah Preah Khae and Ak Ambok. Sampeah Preah Khae is salutation of the Moon. This full moon is called the harvest moon and for this ceremony, we set up various offerings to Chandra to show our gratitude for a bountiful harvest. And at 12 o’clock midnight, under the full moon, it’s time for Ak Ambok (eat ambok). Ambok is rice fried in husk and then pounded with a pestle to flatten. The husks are then removed. This last ceremony is to express our thankfulness to Lord Indra for defeating Vritra to release water so that we can have rain to nourish lives on earth. To show our gratitude, we eat ambok with bananas and drink coconut water. To ak ambok is to have your head upturn with opened mouth and pour ambok in. Not many eat ambok that way anymore. Some people just eat bananas and ambok normally and then drink coconut water. Some pour coconut water over ambok (like how you’d eat cereal with milk) and eat with bananas. Some mix ambok with mashed bananas and drink coconut water.

Whichever way you prefer to eat, if you ever find yourself in Cambodia during the Water Festival, do not eat, I repeat Do Not Eat ambok with coconut water, or you’ll find yourself bloated for the next two days.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

There are 11 comments.

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  1. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    I love your glimpses into a culture I have had zero exposure to.  Thank you very much.

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    LC: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

    And to you.

    • #2
  3. Susan in Seattle Member
    Susan in Seattle
    @SusaninSeattle

    Just fantastic: thank you!

    And, Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Very interesting. Google Maps and Street View helped with the geography lesson. I see what you mean about a lot of water. 

    • #4
  5. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Another wonderful true story, better than National Geographic. This post is part of the November theme, “Service.” The month is filled up, so I will post December’s theme Monday.

    • #5
  6. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    LC,

    Astounding beauty.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #6
  7. PHenry Member
    PHenry
    @PHenry

    LC: do not eat, I repeat Do Not Eat ambok with coconut water, or you’ll find yourself bloated for the next two days.

    Is it the coconut water or the combination of the ambok rice, bananas, and coconut water that bloats?  And by bloat, do you mean ‘feel uncomfortably full’ or do you mean ‘sick to your stomach’? 

    Just curious.  (I suffer serious ‘bloat’ after a fine Thanksgiving dinner, (uncomfortably full) so I’m just wondering if it is a similar celebration hangover?)

    • #7
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Wow, what a post! Fascinating things I’d never have read about elsewhere. Evocative and beautiful. Thanks, LC!

    • #8
  9. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    PHenry (View Comment):

    LC: do not eat, I repeat Do Not Eat ambok with coconut water, or you’ll find yourself bloated for the next two days.

    Is it the coconut water or the combination of the ambok rice, bananas, and coconut water that bloats? And by bloat, do you mean ‘feel uncomfortably full’ or do you mean ‘sick to your stomach’?

    Just curious. (I suffer serious ‘bloat’ after a fine Thanksgiving dinner, (uncomfortably full) so I’m just wondering if it is a similar celebration hangover?)

    It’s an uncomfortably full feeling. The combination of coconut water and ambok together generally causes a bloat fest. And I don’t think it’s from overeating either. It just must be something between consuming the two together.

    Cambodians usually don’t ever drink coconut water at night/after dinner. I don’t really know why because it doesn’t make that much sense to me.

    • #9
  10. Derek Helt Inactive
    Derek Helt
    @DerekHelt

    Here’s a few pictures I took of Water Festival a few years ago. We didn’t attend this year, for various reasons, but Bon Oum Touk is quite a good time.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Derek Helt (View Comment):

    Here’s a few pictures I took of Water Festival a few years ago. We didn’t attend this year, for various reasons, but Bon Oum Touk is quite a good time.

    I took the liberty of viewing the full-size uploaded versions of these. They are nice to look at. Here are the links:

    Pic1

    Pic2

    Pic3

    Pic4

    Pic5

    • #11

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