Celebrating the End of Rice Harvesting Season with Huge Splashes

Villagers of Bangkoang village, Prasat Bakong district, Siem Reap province, are catching fish at an old pond on Feb. 11 for the upcoming spiritual ceremony called Lerng Meak. Photo: Ky Chamna

SIEM REAP – A time-honored tradition unfolds each year as villagers celebrate the end of the rice harvesting season. Known as the “fishing celebration,” this yearly festivity brings together communities for a race to catch as much fish as possible, which is later shared with all the members of the community.

The fishing celebration was held on Feb. 11, about 16 kilometers from Siem Reap city’s downtown in the village of Bangkoang, Prasat Bakong district. It took place a few days before the village celebrates Lerng Meak and Lerng Neak Ta, a rite associated with ensuring the next harvest. While these festivities are usually celebrated from the end of January to mid-February, villages chose different dates to celebrate the deities. Nonetheless, the goal remains the same: Obtaining blessings from the tutelary deity that resides in the villagers’ community.

The rectangular-shaped community pond where the fishing celebration takes place is mostly unused and protected throughout the year except when it is time to celebrate the end of the harvesting season when hundreds of villagers intensely fish on the same date.

“Some of our folks had arrived here as early as 1 a.m.,” Bangkoang Village Chief Pich Khin said. “It doesn't really matter how much we can catch as an individual. We are just here to have fun as a community practicing our old tradition”.

Pich Khin, Bangkoang village chief. Photo: Ky Chamna

As the morning sky slowly brightened with the silhouette of palm trees and wooden houses on stilts slowly emerging from the darkness, more and more fishermen gathered at the edges of the pond equipped with their traditional fishing gear such as nets and rattan baskets.

Before the race to catch fish starts, campfires are made to bring heat and cook the fish later, once the celebration eventually ends. The flickering flames cast dancing shadows on the faces of the villagers who sat huddled around the fire with their hands outstretched to soak in its comforting warmth, while the others were resting in a hammock. Small businesses selling drinks and snacks also caught their annual celebration to earn some income.

A system of loudspeakers attached to the trailer of a power tiller played music to ensure the atmosphere remained cheerful.

Suddenly, a loud ‘Bang’ from a firework, set off by the village chief, kicked off the race. People splashed into the water trying to pursue the biggest bounty through different techniques based on their energy and skill. Some fished in groups with the use of large nets, while others went in person holding their own fish baskets trying to trap the fish on one spot of the pond at a time.

Some villages can get typically up to five kilograms of fish in the few minutes the festival lasts.

 Villagers from different parts of Siem Reap province gather at an old pond in Bangkoang village for the annual fishing celebration on Feb. 11. Photo: Ky Chamna

“The fish that are caught is divided into two portions, one for family use and another one for the community in which a ceremony, called Lerng Meak, which involves a lot of fish to be cooked, will be conducted soon”, Pich Khin continues.

Amidst the hunt for fish, photographers and vloggers hunted for the perfect shot. Remi Abad, a French photographer from CambodgeMag, could not let the celebration slip away from his lenses.

“It is typically Cambodian. Everyone is smiling. So, I decided to come here to capture the livelihood of locals since it made me curious about this celebration. It is so nice to see this”, he said.

Remi Abad, a French photographer from CambodgeMag. Photo: Luy Sireyreaksa

From large fish – roughly the size of an adult forearm – to small fish – the size of a human ear – this celebration has cemented the communities successfully for another year.

Once caught, the fresh fish instantly met with the flames of the campfires and was slowly cooked so that it kept its original flavor as much as possible. The aroma of grilled fish filled the air of the newly-harvested rice paddies combined with the sounds of laughter and conversation as everyone enjoyed their breakfast.

 Villagers of Bangkoang village, Siem Reap province, celebrate the Lerng Meak spiritual ceremony on Feb. 13 after the fishing celebration on Feb. 11. Photo: Isa Rohany

Professor Ang Choulean, a renowned Cambodian ethnologist of the Royal University of Fine Arts, stressed that the celebration is dominated by the cycle of the rice season. 

“What caught my attention is that the name of the Bangkoang village can be seen on a stone inscription from the 9th century”, he added. “However, it didn’t mention the fishing celebration.” 

Prof. Ang Choulean, an ethnologist from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA). Photo: Ky Chamna

On Feb. 13, the villagers of Bangkoang gathered again at a local religious hall next to the pond to prepare the food and soup made from fish caught a couple of days earlier. Monks were invited for religious chanting while locals spent their afternoon having meals together during the ceremony.

Villagers of Bangkoang village, Siem Reap province, celebrate the Lerng Meak spiritual ceremony on Feb. 13 after the fishing celebration on Feb. 11. Photo: Isa Rohany

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