Eating Ambok: Folktales and customs of the Water Festival

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Villagers prepare Ambok in Kampong Thom province’s Kampong Svay district. Hong Menea

The Water Festival aligns with the date of the full moon in the Khmer lunar calendar month of Kadeuk (or Kartika in Sanskrit) when the rice crops in paddy fields are ready for harvest.

Besides being a staple food in the Kingdom, rice also plays an important role in the festival, with coconut and banana rice snack Ambok sold throughout the festive period.

As the Water Festival (Bon Om Touk in Khmer) approaches, motorists who pass through a stretch of National Road 6 in Kampong Thom province’s Kampong Svay district will notice busy villagers cooking Ambok and selling it along the road.

Kampong Thom provincial governor Sok Lou told The Post: “Besides Kampong Svay, other places such as Baray district also produce Ambok, but none are as well-known for the snack as Kampong Svay.”

This year, Ambok has been placed under the spotlight by Prime Minister Hun Sen. He has called on the public to enjoy the traditional snack together on November 9 “for the protection of the nation, religion and King”.

Lou said: “The provincial administration will prepare nearly two tonnes of Ambok. We will celebrate the event at Steung Sen garden and will be giving out Ambok to residents and travellers for free.”

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Besides being a staple food in the Kingdom, rice also plays an important role in the Water Festival, with coconut and banana rice snack Ambok sold throughout the festive period. Hong Menea

Folktale of the Water Festival

Other than the custom of eating Ambok during the Water Festival, Cambodians also observe the traditions of Ork Ambok and Sampeah Preah Khe.

Ork Ambok is the offering of Ambok to the moon, whereas Sampeah Preah Khe refers to the salutation of the moon. Both customs are a commemoration of a Buddha called Pouthesat.

As the legend goes, one day long ago, a Buddha was reincarnated as a rabbit called Pouthesat. Every full moon, this holy rabbit dedicated his life to someone who wanted to become a Buddha.

One full moon, the god Preah Ean found out about this, took the form of an old man and asked Pouthesat if he could eat him.

The rabbit agreed to give his life but the old man said: “This rabbit has observed moral precepts for a long time, so he cannot be killed.”

Then the rabbit jumped into a fire to kill himself so the old man could eat him.

Though, before Pouthesat jumped into the fire, he quietly wished to stay in the moon forever after his death.

According to the legend, we can still see the rabbit in the middle of the moon today.

Other than the folktale of Pouthesat, an interesting geographical phenomenon occurs during the Water Festival, which is the reversal of the flow between the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.

As a result of the rainy season, the Tonle Sap river swells with water, reversing the direction of its flow upstream to Tonle Sap lake.

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Celebrated for centuries

The Water Festival has been celebrated in the Kingdom for centuries, with evidence found on etchings at Bayon and Banteay Chhmar temple walls.

With its roots going way back to the Angkorian-era Khmer empire, the kings in ancient times sent many naval forces to countless battles to defend the empire.

Today, boat races are held during the Water Festival to represent the force of the Khmer navy and the victories they achieved.

Taking inspiration from Pouthesat the holy rabbit, an officer of Horoscope Research and Tradition in the Ministry of Religions and Cults Vay Vibol, hopes the folktale serves as a reminder to Cambodians for them to sacrifice for a greater good.

He wishes all that Cambodians celebrating the Water Festival will observe the tradition of eating Ambok together, and it take it as a show of unity.

“I want only peace because our nation went through great pain and miseries [during the Khmer Rouge era].

“I want this day of eating Ambok to serve as a reminder of the importance of unity to maintain the harmonious ambience in our country for continuous development,” said Vibol.