First a little about the Tonle Sap, on which the festival takes place:
The Tonle Sap is perhaps the most incredible and unique geographical system in the world. Sap in Khmer means fresh. Tonle translates into both river and lake, depending on context. In the case of the Tonle Sap, it means both because the Tonle Sap is a river/lake system, but I will refer to them as lake and river to avoid confusion.
The Tonle Sap Lake is located roughly in the middle of Cambodia and runs, via the Tonle Sap River, into the Mekong River. It is at the confluence of these two rivers, that the city of Phnom Penh, the capital, is located. The Mekong then continues its way into Vietnam, and eventually the South China Sea. Now the mighty Mekong isn't called such for no reason. During the rainy season from mid-May to mid-October, the Mekong river changes level at an incredible rate and to extremes, in some locations, by as much as 30 meters. The Mekong is the fifth longest river in the world and starts in East Tibet. It has many tributaries and before reaching Cambodia, it passes between Burma, Laos and Thailand.
By the time the turbulent waters reach Phnom Penh, the force of the river is so incredibly swollen and strong that it actually forces the Tonle Sap River to flow backwards! In doing so, it also causes the Tonle Sap Lake to flood. Don't think that the Tonle Sap River or Lake are small by any means. A trip along the meandering river to the lake takes about 2 hours by speedboat. During the dry season the Tonle Sap Lake is about 3,000km2 with an average depth of 1 m. During the wet season, it expands to 10,000km2 with an average depth of 12. That's about 2 and half times its original size and many more times the volume. Imagine any lake near you expanding and contracting that much each and every year. Compare and contrast.
The Tonle Sap is largely responsible for the location and success of the ancient Khmer Empire, with Angkor Wat, the most important temple, located about 10 kilometers from it's shores. And today it plays a vital role in the region's economy; the yearly flooding provides water for rice irrigation as well as a spawning area for a variety of fish life. The system also prevents excessive flooding further down along the Mekong, at the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. If it wasn't for this natural water reservoir, the lands south of Phnom Penh would be much more devastated, and more permanently, by flooding.
It's natural wonder of hydrology and no surprise that the annual change in flow is marked with the largest national festival. Hundreds of thousands, millions even, come into the city for the three day celebration and boat races. Teams from all over the country row long boats manned with up to 60 rowers, from the Japanese Friendship bridge to in front of the Royal Palace, where the King himself sits and watches the races. The total distance is about 1700 meters and takes only several minutes to complete as the boats are propelled by the force of the water flowing back into the Mekong.
This team opted for traditional dress.
These boats just finished their races and were on their way back up river. Here they are just passing the King's viewing podium and saluting his Royal Highness.
Some boats have a woman in traditional dress at the front of the boat. She often has the whistle that signals the rhythm for the rowers.
Trying to capture just how many boats and how colourful the festival is!
I love this festival! Everyone is in a good mood, full of smiles even though the competition for first place is fierce. Fights sometimes do break out between teams as they slowly work their way back up to the starting point, but for the most part there is a lot of hand slapping and camaraderie. Last year there were over 500 boats competing and sadly there are far fewer this year because of the floods after Ketsana. A lot of villages that usually send teams were unable to this year, being preoccupied with rebuilding after the devastation of the typhoon...