1. November 2015. For the most part Siem Reap is a laid-back city, especially considering the number of tourists it draws in as the gateway to the nearby Angkor temples. Stay away from the frenetic Old Market and the irksome Pub Street and a pleasingly languid, feet-up vibe prevails. If you do want to experience the city in full-on party mode, head here in October/November for the annual water festival, known locally as Bon Om Touk. The exact dates vary, back in 2015 it fell between the 24th and the 26th of November.
2. November 2015. Dating back to the thirteenth century, Bon Om Touk marks the end of the rainy season and is a grand celebration of water as a key component of daily life. I remember being somewhat startled by just how transformed Siem Reap was that year, with thousands of people (mostly Khmer) flooding the city centre for three days of non-stop celebrations. Boat racing is the main event, a tradition that goes back to a famous Cambodian military victory over an invading Cham army in 1177. Siem Reap’s various neighborhoods compete in the races, with each group clearly identified by different colored outfits.
3. November 2015. A few of the boats are usually manned by local monks who come in from nearby towns and villages to join in the celebrations. Visitors can watch the action unfold from the banks of the Siem Reap River. Families will virtually set up camp for the day in and around the various tent restaurants that cook up local dishes around the clock.
4. November 2015. I remember one of my Khmer colleagues at school warning me to be careful during Bon Om Touk. Over two hundred and fifty thousand people flood in over the three days and there’s a sharp increase in thieves and beggars. I didn’t personally experience any trouble at all, but noticed a definite presence of what I can only describe as unfortunates, from weathered looking provincial families and children dressed in rags to aggressive beggars tagging themselves onto tourists. But overall the atmosphere was a celebratory one and I didn’t see so much as a minor skirmish.
5. November 2015. Bon Om Touk Water Festival also includes a huge market with local food and handicraft stalls spread out all over the city. The main concentration is naturally huddled right around the riverbanks. Needless to say accommodation prices surge, but all in all this is still one of the cheapest countries to travel in Asia and you’ll be surprised just how far your money goes.
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