Social Media Highlights Water Festival Beyond Phnom Penh

Water Festival in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (undated, taken from web)

Water Festival in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. (undated, taken from web)

Cambodia’s traditional Water and Moon Festival or “Bon Om Touk” (បុណ្យ​​​អុំទូក អក​​​អំបុក សំពះ​​​ព្រះខែ), formerly Water Festival, is celebrated in the capital Phnom Penh and provincial towns every November to mark, amongst other things, the end of the rainy season, the reversal to normal course of the Tonle Sap river, and to honor the imperial navy of the Khmer Empire. Although likely rooted in ancient Angkor, the modern tradition is primarily focused at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, whose location at the confluence of four rivers (Chaktomouk), makes the royal capital ideal for provincial boats to float to the venue of celebration with ease. Please note that Cambodian Water Festival is not to be confused with traditional new year Water Festival in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar which falls in April.

Carvings of Khmer fighting Cham Warriors, Bayon temple (

Carvings of Khmer fighting Cham Warriors, Bayon temple (

As a native of Phnom Penh, I grew up either liking or hating the crowds that converge in there. I have always heard and seen on TV some of the same though smaller celebrations in Cambodia’s smaller towns and in the former Khmer provinces in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. But with the boat races in Phnom Penh cancelled for many years following the tragic stampede in 2010 and the advance of social media seems to highlight the many and equally colorful events happening beyond Phnom Penh. These are perhaps reason for Phnom Penhois to, once again, enjoy Bon Om Touk, away from home.

Lowell, USA (August 15)[Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

Please join us on August 15th 2015 from 9am to 4:30pm. We have boat races, live entertainment authentic food, merchandise and information booths.500 Pawtucket BlvdLowell, MA(978) 995-2362

Posted by Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival on Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A family trip to Lowell Water Festival in 2015:

Lowell, USA in 2014:

Battambang (October 25): [Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

អុំទូក បណ្តែតប្រទីត ចេញព្រះវស្សា ខេត្តបាត់ដំបងរូបភាព Sotheara GBS

Posted by បាត់ដំបង – Battambang on Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Svay Rieng, Cambodia (November 1):

Long Boats Racing in Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. from Kimlong Meng on Vimeo.

Tra Vinh (ខេត្ត​​​ព្រះត្រពាំង), Vietnam (November 23): [Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

ពិធីប្រណាំងទូក ង ខ្នាតតូច (អុំ ១០ នាក់/ ១ ក្រុម) នាថ្ងៃច័ន្ទ ទី ២៣ ខែវិច្ឆិកា គ.ស. ២០១៥ ដែលបានចាត់តាំងឡើងដោយក្រុមគណៈកម្មការបុណ្យ អកអំបុក បណ្ដែតប្រទីប សំពះព្រះខែ នៅភូមិឫស្សីស្រុក។

Posted by Wat Veluvana on Monday, November 23, 2015


Soc Trang (ខេត្ត​​​ឃ្លាំង), Vietnam in 2013:

Siem Reap-Angkor, Cambodia (November 24)[Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

Apparently, this year’s biggest.

អបអរសាទរ ព្រះរាជពិធីបុណ្យ អុំទូក អកអំបុក បណ្តែតប្រទីប និង សំពះព្រះខែ អាជ្ញាធរខេត្តសៀមរាបរៀបចំពិធីបុណ្យអុំទូករយៈពេលពីរថ្ង…

Posted by Andy Sim Photography on Monday, November 23, 2015

And back to … Phnom Penh (November 24)[Click date to Facebook as post embed not working]

“To me, a Water Festival that has no boat racing is completely meaningless.” The #WaterFestival has begun in #PhnomPenh, but the city is quiet and disappointed. #Cambodia

Posted by The Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday, November 24, 2015


What about other places? Where did you go during Water Festival?


Angkor’s Founding City Revealed on Mount Kulen

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Age website)

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Sydney Morning Herald website)

A group of archaeologists from the Greater Angkor Project in Australia have discovered the precise location and extent of Mahendraparvata, one of the founding Angkorean cities, according an exclusive report by the Sydney Morning Herald. Mahendraparvata (មហេន្ទ្របព៌ត) – now with its own Wikipedia entry – was founded by King Jayavarman II on the now “mist-shrouded” Phnom Kulen mountains around time of the Khmer Empire’s founding in 802. The urban structure of the ancient city was discovered using a modern airborne laser-scanning technology called lidar.

Damian Evans who leads the research, explains the significance of the find:

”This is where it all began, giving rise to the Angkor civilisation that everyone associates with Angkor Wat.”

The mountain city predates the nearby lowland city of Angkor and Angkor Wat by 350 but appears to have similar urban features of roads, canals, temples, and orientation.

A 2007 research map by the GAP which showed Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city included Phnom Kulen within its study boundary. But it did not show anything other than scattered temples on the mountain.

Maps from a 2007 research, revealing the extend of Angkor's urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. (

A map from a 2007 research reveals the extend of Angkor’s urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. This makes Angkor the largest pre-industrial city known. (

Although researchers have long known about the existence and location of Mahendraparvata, the new findings suddenly put a sophisticated urban structures – roads, canals, dykes, etc – all onto a plateau-like mountain. As amazing as it is to imagine what the sprawling city of Angkor looked like during its peak in the 12th century, it is equally fascinating to ponder what an ancient Khmer ‘hydraulic plateau’ city with mountainous roads and canals looked like. Mahendraparvata is then no longer a just a collection of temples where King Jayavarman II declared the birth of the Khmer Empire, but rather it would be a hydraulic city in its own right and on the above map, would appear as an outlying suburb or satellite city of Greater Angkor. Astounding.

But why did Jayavarman II eventually descend from the mountain city to build a low-land capital at Hariharalaya near Angkor? Was Mahendraparvata a prototype for Angkor’s hydraulic structures or was deforestation also an early story for the civilization?

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

It’s unclear why the King decided to move down. This finding seems to tell me that after having experimented with water management on the safely situated and self-sustaining mountain capital, the King looked down over the vast forested Angkorean plain and thought “Now let’s implement our urbanization project on a grand scale.”

But perhaps it might just have been deforestation and the beginning a starting-anew pattern that would recur throughout the Angkorean period?

In fact, the Khmer’s very tendency to over-engineer their landscapes may have led to their ultimate doom. Whenever drought killed rice and other crops, the Khmer simply moved elsewhere and built even larger canals — stretching beyond the landscape’s sustainability. Decades-long droughts in the 14th and 15thcenturies finally helped do the civilization in.

This is anyone’s guess at this point. In any case, King Jayarvarman II must have been a visionary leader who not only established the “God-King” as state ideology but also had some strong geographical and engineering understandings. It seems that the birth of the Khmer Empire was possible due to very unique historical circumstances: a toxic fusion of ambitions, ideology, scientific understanding, favorable geography, etc. What eventually brought it down, as many scholars now believe, were overengineering and equally unique circumstances of mega-droughts.

If you are really into ‘scientific archeology’ as I am, please stay tuned to Dr. Evans’ team’s research titled “Uncovering Archaeological Landscapes at Angkor Using Lidar” to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It’s like Indiana-Jones all over again!

On 51st ICJ Anniversary, Preah Vihear Less Politically Divisive

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

Preah Vihear temple in December 2012. (Sophat Soeung)

WASHINGTON – On the 51st anniversary of the ICJ’s ruling of June 15, 1962, I ask where is the Preah Vihear temple dispute today?

The ancient Hindu-Khmer* temple of Preah Vihear is once again ‘on trial’ at the International Court of Justice earlier this year. Exactly two month before the 51st anniversary of its 1962 ruling, the court held another hearing right around Khmer/Thai new year on the request for reinterpretation of that ruling. The request was made by Cambodia, following a series of border conflicts with Thailand between 2008 and 2011 subsequent to the enlisting of Preah Vihear temple as world heritage site.

The court is expected to make a landmark ruling in October. The big question is what the ruling will be. But an even bigger question is how the two countries – especially Thailand and the Thai military – will react to the ruling.

The good news is that – at least on the Cambodian side – local politics appear to be out of the picture, at least until the October ruling. Although some domestic dynamics in both countries are similar to the period leading up to Cambodia’s 2008 national elections, the differences are significant, especially the current Thai government’s much more favorable attitude towards Cambodia and Mr. Hun Sen. This has especially manifested itself in Thailand’s recent denial of entry to opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Even though the ICJ hearing occured just over three months before Cambodia’s national elections on July 28 and the pending case extending over into the post-election period, the hearing and 51st anniversary has officially been kept low, perhaps also out of the need to show impartiality during the high-profile World Heritage Committee gathering starting tomorrow.

A final factor is that unlike in 2008, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has by now established itself as a legitimate protector of the country’s sovereignty, a legitimacy it has lacked and some still see as lacking. And according to analyst Chheang Vannarith, the disappearance of Preah Vihear in election politics is also due to Cambodia’s general confidence after the ICJ’s April hearing on a generally unifying issue for Cambodians. Here’s my Skype interview with him, in Khmer.

Back in the last election in 2008, the Preah Vihear dispute eventually became somewhat intertwined with pre-election politics in Cambodia and helped set a string of events that eventually let to Thai-Cambodia border skirmishes. This was how I viewed the situation back in November 2009, after the first round of border clashes between the two countries. In hindsight, however, the Preah Vihear dispute then was ironically also the most unifying issues in country in decades. It unified Cambodians across political lines both inside and outside the country.

Preah Vihear concert in 2008: A rare large-scale re-introduction of formerly banned nationalistic song “Pongsavadar Khmer” or “Khmer Chronicle”, something previously unthought of by the CPP.

The bad news, however, according to the same observer, is that there is no foreseeable ‘good’ or ‘win-win’ scenarios yet following the ICJ ruling in October, making things less predictable.

Since Preah Vihear is likely not a factor this year’s Cambodian politics, where attention has shifted east, the likely scenario in the run-up to the ruling remains one of calm like since current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power. Until the ICJ ruling, and thereafter, it seems the key player and determinant in the dispute will be the Thai military.

*I use the term “Hindu-Khmer” temple rather than “Hindu temple” or “Khmer temple” to more accurately describe the nature of the ancient temples build by the Khmer Empire. It appears that the term “Hindu temple” is mostly used in Thailand to maximize the religious nature of it and ignoring the Khmer identity of the temple. In Cambodia, the temples -including Angkor Wat – are simply known as “Khmer temple” to refer to its cultural heritage, where Hinduism is already understood as a part of Khmer identity.

Note: An earlier version of this article wrongly suggests that this year was the 50th anniversary rather than 51st anniversary.