Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Tonle Sap and Water Festival

We are on vacation right now.  I’m sitting in a hotel room with 2 kids and a husband who are all sick and I’m nervously wondering when I’ll get the ugly virus!  We go home tomorrow, so I’m anxious to make it home before it hits at least!

I wanted to share a little about this holiday before I fill up pages and pages of my next few posts with photos of truly some of the most amazing and beautiful places I’ve ever visited (when the kids were feeling ok, of course)!

November 9-11 this year in Cambodia is when the annual Water Festival Holiday fell.  It’s usually late October to early November and that date has something to do with the full moon at this time of the Buddhist Calendar.  Cambodians call it Bon Om Touk, though there are like 4 different ways to spell that so I don't know which is right.  What it is called isn’t the cool part – what it celebrates is!

Get ready because this is one of those fun facts you should memorize in case you ever find yourself on some reality game show or just in a really good game of Trivial Pursuit.  You might get this question:  Where is the one river in the whole world that changes direction of its flow every single year?   Yep, you guessed it, in the Kingdom of Cambodia!  Here’s why, and I think it’s fabulously interesting:

Check out this map:

See the giant lake?  That’s the Tonle Sap Lake, and it’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.  And that river running down south to Phnom Penh from it is the Tonle Sap River.  Also note the other river, the Mekong, that meets the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh.  These are the important geographic points of the phenomenon.

Cambodia has two seasons:  wet and dry.  For most of the year the Tonle Sap travels down from the lake and flows into the Mekong and then onward south.  But, when the wet season arrives, the Mekong rises and pushes the water back up the Tonle Sap into the lake. During this time the lake grows to 10 times its normal size.  Then, when the rainy season ends and the Mekong drops again, the water of the Tonle Sap switches direction again.  That’s what happens now, in November. 

This is cause for great celebration and religious significance as well and the population of Phnom Penh grows to almost 3 times its normal size over the 3-5 day holiday.  Those who can’t find a hotel or friend to stay with just camp out on the streets of the city.  (That’s why we left town!)  The Tonle Sap is a great source of life for many Cambodians because they make their living by fishing or farming, and this expansion and contraction of the size of the lake works to fertilize the fields around the water and keep the fish in the water breeding.  Many fish from the mighty Mekong swim upstream to breed during this change in flow.

During the festival there are usually huge boat races, fireworks, parades, and celebrations, but this rainy season of 2011 has been especially bad so the races were cancelled.  Maybe not as many people stayed to see the other events as well, but we won’t know because we came to Siem Reap instead.  You’ll see it just north of the lake on the map. 

And oh, boy, do I have photos and stories coming about Siem Reap!  It’s amazing here!  The kids weren’t at 100% because they were a little sick, but we did about half a day each day and it was worth it.  Then Stephen got sick and well, I can’t push any of them anymore.  So I’m sitting in the hotel room looking through my 500+ photos for the best ones to show to you!  We head back home tomorrow.

Hard to believe I’m calling Phnom Penh “home” so easily these days!

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