River cruising Vietnam and Cambodia: Phnom Penh's end-of-monsoon celebrations are spectacular

Bang. Boom. Bang. Whoosh, Bang. Boom. Whoosh. Bang. Sharp, loud noises of a violent nature seem to be emerging from nowhere. It's the sort of stuff the vigilant, tremulous international traveller does not need to hear when in foreign climes in 2019.

Fortunately, the cacophony here in Phnom Penh is merely the result of a Cambodian king with an itchy trigger finger. It's an enervating early evening, the air is as gluggy as a preschooler's glue pot, and it's not yet dark. Inexplicably, however, His Highness has decided to launch the pyrotechnics display marking the end of Bon Om Touk – Cambodia's spectacular three-day annual water and moon festival, which celebrates the end of the monsoon season – an hour or so earlier than scheduled.

The fiery chrysanthemums shooting and bursting above have halted me in my tracks, along with several hundred thousand other folk assembled along the broad Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong. I've been communing all afternoon with these celebrative Cambodians who have thronged the already-crazy-enough city from all corners of the country.

Although the effect of viewing the fireworks by day is as underwhelming as watching a movie in a drive-in theatre at high noon, the same, thankfully, cannot be said about the spectacular events taking place along the river opposite the Royal Palace.

In one of south-east Asia's great spectacles, a flotilla of traditional wooden rowboats, or pirogues, races up and down the river, watched by the legions who clamour along the banks for a vantage point. It's heartening to be among these people who have endured unspeakable tragedy and who to this day are governed by the reactionary Hun Sen, the autocratic Cambodian Prime Minister.

I'm here on part of a 13-day river and land journey aboard the Scenic Spirit, a luxury river ship sailing between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, and am lucky to be in Phnom Penh at the same time as the festival which commemorates not only the end of the monsoon season but also the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk. Scenic Spirit has sailed right into the final day of celebrations and, with the Tonle Sap River a temporary aquatic race track, it's necessary for us to anchor away from the ship's normal location at Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh's three-kilometre-long riverside promenade.

With the injection of massive amounts of Chinese aid and investment, Phnom Penh has emerged as a budding Bangkok, even though taxis are yet to replace the city's fleet of tuk-tuks.

Food, but perhaps not quite as you know it, plays a major part in the celebrations for the festival. Anywhere there are crowds – which, on this day, means everywhere – there are hawkers with hand-pushed food carts laden with an extraordinary range of wholly unappetising local Cambodian peasant delicacies. These morsels include skewered baby birds, fried snakes, tarantulas, crickets, cockroaches (need I go on?), all with an optional squeeze of fresh lime. Bring on the Dagwood dogs, please.

But, really, such sights are a sideshow compared with the spectacle along the river, which commemorates not only the end of the monsoon and the easing of water levels but also an extraordinary natural hydrological phenomenon.

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The Mekong swells to such an extent during the flooding rains of the monsoon that the 120-kilometre-long Tonle Sap River is forced to flow backwards away from the sea. This epic process leads to the flooding of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, south-east Asia's largest freshwater lake, increasing its supply of fish and benefiting its surrounding fertile farmlands.

Once the water subsides, fishing and farming can resume in earnest with a full moon itself a harbinger of good fortune. And if that's not enough cause for celebration, Bon Om Touk also commemorates naval victories that took place in the ninth century, during the rule os King Jayavarman II, when regattas were staged as displays of water-going prowess.

The following morning, after a night spent ashore at a hotel I'd booked to make the most of my brief stay in Phnom Penh, I'm heading back to Scenic Spirit to resume my river journey.

It's here that I unexpectedly gain a close-up perspective of the heroic pirogues I'd witnessed from afar, one of which is being wheeled along the quay in quite the procession. These craft are so long and cumbersome that, once the celebrations are over, the ones from nearby provinces have to be wheeled home along the road by their teams and supporters, on massive trailers and under a full police escort. The laborious process, undertaken in a jovial and collegial spirit, with plenty of singing, can consume a whole day.

There's little time for me to pause and watch, however, as I've got a rendezvous with my own, somewhat more luxurious vessel and there's a special, volunteers-only Cambodian fried insects tasting planned by the head chef. Now that's even scarier than a sudden, royal-decreed daytime pyrotechnics display.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN PHNOM PENH

VISIT THE RIVERSIDE ROYAL PALACE

The official residence of King Nordom Sihamoni, the imposing riverside Royal Palace was built in the 19th century with the assistance of the colonial French. If you're not visiting as part of a group, be sure to engage one of the inexpensive licensed tour guides inside the gates to gain a better understanding of the complex. See scenic.com.au

PAY YOUR RESPECT TO POL POT'S VICTIMS

If you don't have time to visit the Killing Fields, or even if you do, factor in a visit to the chilling S21, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was turned into a prison and torture chamber during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. Today it's a stark and confronting museum where every room reveals horror heaped upon horror. See tuolseng.gov.kh

DINE ON A HIGH

The new 188-metre-high Vattanac Capital Tower is home to the Cambodian capital's flashiest new five-star hotel, the Rosewood Phnom Penh. Sora, its al fresco rooftop "sky bar", is a hit with locals and out-of-towners, along with its top-floor restaurant, Brasserie Louis, which has unmatched river and city views. See rosewoodhotels.com

BRUSH UP ON YOUR RUSSIAN

The architecturally imposing, French-built Psar Thmei, or Central Market, has been refurbished and sanitised for tourists, so head to the more authentic and better value Russian Market. A labyrinthine bazaar, so named because Russian expatriates once shopped here in the 1980s, you'll find all manner of wares and also cheap eating spots. It's at the corner of Street 163 and Street 444.

DOWN A FEMME FATALE

Come down to earth with a drink at the legendary Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Order a Femme Fatale, the signature cocktail, named after Jacqueline Kennedy in honour of her visit to Cambodia to see Angkor . Don't miss the small but fascinating display of memorabilia from Jackie's tour, including a red-lipstick-tinged glass used for a toast a royal reception. See raffles.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/cambodia

CRUISE

Scenic's all-inclusive 13-day Treasures of the Mekong cruise and land tour from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia, starts from $7695 per person. This fare will also apply for all bookings for 2020 departures made by June 30, 2019. The price includes a one-bedroom balcony suite aboard Scenic Spirit with butler service, five exclusive Scenic Enrich experiences, including Phnom Penh excursions, a choice of nearly two dozen Scenic Freechoice activities, multiple breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and complimentary drinks throughout the cruise.

See scenic.com.au

CELEBRATE

The next Bon Om Touk water festival will be held this year between November 10 and 12. This year Scenic Spirit will visit other sites in Cambodia, such as Siem Reap and Wat Hanchey, where it will be also possible to experience Bon Om Touk celebrations.

FLY

Singapore Airlines and its affiliate SilkAir operate daily flights to and from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap where Scenic's Treasures of the Mekong cruise and land tour begins or ends. See singaporeair.com; silkair.com

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Scenic Cruises.

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