All you want to know about the Water Festival

November is a very rich month with festivities in Cambodia.

After Independence Day in early November, another one of the biggest local celebrations is coming soon! Actually starting tomorrow.

It is called the Water Festival or “Bonn Om Touk”. It usually takes place during the full moon of November, which falls this year on 21-23 November. It is definitely one of the most spectacular of its kind in Southeast Asia.

Find below all you want to know about this highly joyful festival.

Where does it come from?

This Water festival has been celebrated in Cambodia since the 13th century.

Originally, it is aimed at celebrating the end of the rainy season which often coincides with the reversal of the flow of Tonlé Sap River – that first began in June/July to go northwards with the start of the rainy season combined with the melting of the snow from Tibet -, and the resultant flooding of the Great Tonlé Sap lake upstream. This phenomenon is very unique in the world. During the wet season, the water level in the Mekong rises and the water flows upwards into the Great Tonlé Sap lake. It then turns into the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, increasing nearly 10 times its size. At the end of the rainy season in November, the tide is turning Southwards, emptying the Big lake and waters flow back toward the sea.

On top of falling with the Full Moon which embodies the symbol of a bountiful harvest, Bonn Om Touk symbolizes the importance of the water as a life-giving resource: the lake being full is a source of fish abundance and a source of mineral abundance for the cultivated lands around.

What is going on during the celebration?

This annual festival is celebrated throughout the whole country with traditional dances, folk songs and festive gatherings everywhere.

It is particularly popular & well known in Phnom Penh where it is celebrated with spectacular boat races on the Tonlé Sap river, with more than 300 long and colorful dragon boats, all coming down the river together and competing in a crazy parade in front of His Majesty the King.

Those rowing regattas are said to commemorate the Khmer military victory in the 12th century over the Châme army. They are now a real impressive show for all locals and visitors, highlighting the expertise and speed of the rowers.

Who is it important for?

Bonn Om Touk is a non-religious celebration but has a very special place in all Khmer people’s heart. It is a very joyful and a crazy time of the year with thousands of people from various provinces converging to Phnom Penh to watch the races on the river, eat traditional food, go to street concerts and have fun during the 3 full days of the Festival. After the Khmer New Year, it is the most important holiday time for Cambodians.

Do you know that each of the Wats in Phnom Penh and in the provinces has its own racing dragon boat? There is actually an elaborate ritual to “waken up the boat” after a year-long “sleep” and to “open their (removable) eyes” when they are placed again onto the prow of the regatta boat. And when getting the boat to the Capital City, when the boat has to go under a bridge, the “eyes” are being removed from the prow, taken up on the shore to the other side of the bridge and then placed them back onto the boat, this to avoid bad luck during the race as people will be walking over the boat when they are crossing the bridge. Bonn Om Touk also intends to pay respect to the tutelary deities living under the waters – the Naga (mythical Serpent) – and also to demand Pardon to the waters that have been spoiled over the course of the past year.

So if you are not afraid to tightly mingle with the crowds, you can join the gatherings on Sisowath Quay, you will probably have an unforgettable experience. If you are not in a jostling mood, then you should just find a good spot on a roof top along the riverside to watch the hectic festivities, the many illuminated floats with the logos of the highest institutions of the Kingdom (Royal Palace, Senate, National Assembly, various ministries,…) and marvel at the fireworks from a distance.

On the last day of the festival, Khmer people would prepare offerings such as food, drink and incense in front of their home before gathering at temples later in the evening, in order to thank good spirits of the moon, the water and the land for providing life. Then, after the Sampeah Preah Khaè ceremony (Salutation to the Full Moon), they would eat traditional newly harvested fried rice (Aork Ambok) mixed with coconut and fresh banana, around midnight to end up with the celebration in a joyful mood.

If you want to learn more about Phnom Penh’s best kept secrets, do not miss our walking tour in the Old District!

Photo Credit: various sources

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Apsaras – From the legend to the Khmer classical dance

Apsaras are one of the most emblematic symbols of Khmer identity.  But do you know who they are and what they represent?

In few words, Apsaras are female spirits of the clouds and waters in Hindu culture and were born, according to the legend, from the foam created by the Churning of the Ocean of Milk in the Indian epic “Mahabharatta”. They are celestial nymphs of great grace and sensuality who embody the pleasure of the senses and of the spirit. To some extent, we can compare Apsaras to the muses of ancient Greece.

In the ancient Indian mythology, Apsaras are young and beautiful creatures dancing at the court of Indra, the king of the gods.

During the Angkor monarchy, Apsara dancers would perform the sacred and ritual dances in royal palaces for official ceremonies, in order to grant a wish from the Deities or to give a blessing to the King or welcome distinguished guests. Apsaras are widely represented in the bas-reliefs on the walls of Khmer temples, especially those of Angkor Wat.

Apsara dance is a form of classical dance that was under Royal Patronage of the King, and solely performed in the ancient days at the Royal Court and Palaces for ritual ceremonies purposes to appease the gods and as offerings to them. They are indeed at the heart of Cambodian culture and civilization. It was initially known – back in the early sixties’ “Golden Age” of the Royal Ballet – as “Robam Apsara – Le Ballet des Apsaras” to name the dance featuring the Apsaras celestial dancers only, and the name was recently extended to the entire répertoire of the Royal Ballet in the 1990’s at the end of the war.

The main characteristics of the dance are the hand gestures. With more than 1,500 different gestures, each movement of the fingers and positions of the arms have its own distinct meaning, all related to ancient legends. To give you an idea, it takes a dancer around 6 years to learn all the hand gestures and around 2 hours to show them all in a row.

Like most of other Cambodian cultural traditions, Khmer classical dances as well as folk dances were severely repressed and banned during the Khmer regime and 90% of the dancers and musicians were deported out of the Royal Palace and Capital city, killed or locked up.

Princess Buppha Devi – the eldest daughter of the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, who was herself the Prima Ballerina in the “Corps du Ballet Royal” in the 60’s, had an important role in the current revival of Khmer Apsara dance. Hence in November 2003, it was put on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nowadays, it is still becoming more and more popular.

If you visit Phnom Penh, you should not miss a traditional Khmer dance show. There are different shows in the city, you can check the schedules at the National Museum or at the Sovanna Phum Arts Association.

In January 2019, you can attend as well the new creation of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, “Metamorphosis” on January 18th and 19th, 2019.

If you want to explore more of Phnom Penh’s best kept secrets in an original way, join our daily interactive walking adventure!

Photo Credit: Facebook page Ballet Royal du Cambodge

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Mid-Autumn festival preparations in Hanoi

All the streets in Hanoi’s old Quarter are bustling with Mid-Autumn Festival preparations…

Traditional games, musical performances,  colorful lantern & toys in the shops, parades and lion dances, mooncakes everywhere, children singing folk-songs…🎶🎶🎶This time of the year when the moon is rising is a very joyful time!
The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of Vietnam’s biggest festivals and also known as Children’s Festival because of its focus on children.

This year the most important day will be on the 24th of September.

It’s a great time to take pictures on the streets.

If you join our mystery adventure tour in Hanoi, you would be able to see all these preparations in the heart of Hanoi.

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Hive Life online magazine is featuring us!

“Hive Life” tried our Urban Tales adventure during the summer.

They thoroughly enjoyed our interactive walking adventure in Cholon and featured us in one of their articles about Saigon’s original activities.

In summary, our tour represents for them “a tale of murder and mystery that offers a unique way to get to know Saigon’s historical hub of Chinatown. ”

>>> You can read the whole article right here.

Thank you for your support, Sarah!

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Đinh Lễ , the “book street” in Hanoi

If you are in the mood for a different stroll in Hanoi old quarter, you can go to walk on Đinh Lễ street, better known in Hanoi as the “book street”.

It is located south of the Hoàn Kiếm lake and is open all day from 8:30 in the morning until 6pm. Probably the best time to go would be at the end of the afternoon before twilight, when the light is golden and when passers-by are busy walking around the area and entering book shops. At that time, the activity in Đinh Lễ is in full swing and gives great opportunity to take pictures.

The first bookstore “Nhà sách Mão” (“Mão bookstore”) opened here in this street in early 1990’s. Located on the 2nd floor of the house #5 on the street, it is kind of hidden in a narrow alley. Mr Lê Luy is the owner and the shop is named after his wife’s name, Mrs Pham Thi Mão. They both worked in the publishing industry before and they opened their first shop when they got retired. The growing popularity of their shop soon attracted others to set up in the street and start selling books as well. Later in the early 2000’s, the street got known as the “book street” and became quite famous. Mr Lê Luy is now in his eighties and remains on his own as his wife Mão passed away last year. He still wants to keep his business in memory of her and as long as his health will allow him to do so.
Entering his shop makes you feel being in an “Ali Baba’s cave” with book shelves everywhere.

In the book stores, people of all ages walk around, families with children, students, couples, young adults as well as older people. They all have a look at the books, browsing them, sometimes sitting to read bits and pieces, finally buying them or not. It is quite a lively place.

The area is now closed to vehicles during the week-end so you should park your bike somewhere not far and come by foot to Đinh Lễ.

If you join our mystery adventure tour in Hanoi, you would visit “Mão bookstore” as it is on the itinerary of our scripted tour.

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