Too late for the fun
The Water Festival 2008 – or Bon Om Tuk, as it’s called in Khmer – concluded on Thursday night with boat races and spectacular fireworks.
According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, “up to two million people flood the capital for fun and frolics” during the festival. Great. And I missed it.
Workers were dismantling huge light displays that had been mounted on boats. Kind of like Las Vegas on water.
These displays had praised the beauties of Cambodia in millions of colored lights.
Water Festival is like carnival in Cambodia
The weekend edition of The Cambodia Daily this morning was full of stories about the festival.
One thing that struck me is that there seem to be many similarities between how people in Cambodia celebrate the Water Festival and how the people of my hometown Cologne celebrate carnival every year.
For one, there are special songs composed for both festivals. And it seems that people in both towns love to sing those songs.
The Cambodia Daily writes that this year’s favorite songs included one called Kromom Om Touk. For all of those (like me) who aren’t fluid in Khmer, that roughly translates to “Unmarried Ladies’ Racing Boat”.
The lyrics go
All the racers in my boat are unmarried ladies. We’re skillful at racing. We don’t lose any power. The fastest boat is the unmarried ladies’ racing boat. Our boat is wonderful, and many men come to ask us to be their girlfriends. Nowadays, unmarried ladies are as good as men, race like flying, and are also pretty. Thank you for asking me to be your girlfriend. After I win, I will go with you for a walk.
Now going for a walk is about as risqué as you can get in a song sung in public here…
The rest of the lyrics sound a little dry, but I guess they lose through translation.
Anyway, the song reminded me of one of the most popular carnival songs in Cologne: “Mir sin Kölsche Mädcher”, which also praises the strengths of the local women.
And if you just read the translated lyrics to that German song, you’d probably also wonder about the IQ of the people of Cologne…
Singing in the face of terror
In Cambodia, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge past are never far away. And this is also true in the realm of the Water Festival songs.
During the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, some of the most prominent composers and singers of Water Festival songs lost their lives.
Singing satirical songs apparently didn’t rank high on the Khmer Rouge’s list. And it didn’t take much in those days to get killed…
“But now, there is a new generation, and they make good songs, too,” the Cambodia Daily quotes 26-year-old Kea Khunny.
Deaf Husband, Crippled Wife
But it turns out that the song doesn’t have anything to do with the torture and terror of the Pol Pot regime.
Instead, it’s a husband and wife complaining about typical misunderstandings in a marriage. And the lyrics show that Cambodia is still a very rural society:
I ask him to tiel up the cow, but he goes and ties up the buffalo. I ask him to fish, but he goes and catches chickens. – I bring her to my parents’ house, and she sticks her bow-leg out and my father trips on it. – I ask him to take me to the Water Festival, but he thinks I want to go to bed”
But then the chorus strikes a conciliatory note, hits the listeners with a moral message – and shows that the song is firmly rooted in our time:
Even though both of us are like this, we are an honest couple. We have a baby every year, and we don’t have to worry about AIDS. This is our destiny, so we accept it.