Festivals and Celebrations

Living as a Khmer in Ok Om Bok Festival

When it comes to important holidays in Vietnam, Ok-Om-Bok Festival of Khmer people in Southern Vietnam is not only recognized as a national intangible cultural heritage but it is also one of the most anticipated festivals of the year, attracting thousands of tourists coming to enjoy the unique spirit and lifestyle of the Khmer.

The legend of Ok Om Bok Festival

Before absorbing the theories and beliefs of Buddhism and following an orthodox religion, the Khmer had once been put under the strong influence of Brahmanism. Therefore, similar to other ethnic minorities, Khmer people are popular for their polytheism associating with attractive fairy tales, myths, and mysterious legends, among which is the distinctive Ok Om Bok Festival.

“One legend says that in one incarnation, the Buddha reincarnated as a rabbit. Feeling impatient to witness the early enlightenment of the Buddha to rescue the living beings, the Jade Emperor transformed into a hungry beggar wandering on the Earth. Among animals living in the forest, the monkey, rabbit and dog got along well with one another.

One day, the hungry beggar came and pleaded for food from the animals but received the ignorance and rejection from most of them. Luckily, he encountered the monkey, who was picking up the wild fruits, and was given a bunch of ripe berries. Afterwards, the wild dog came and offered the beggar his best piece of meat.

Finally, after a long and tiresome journey, he came across the rabbit, who was watching the rising moon, and begged for food. Being a kind and generous animal, the rabbit found it hard to ignore the starvation of an elderly person. However, it had no food to store in its cave or to give the old man. The rabbit thought for a moment and bravely came to the decision that it would let the old man use his own meat and jumped right into the raging fire.

When the fire burnt out, the Jade Emperor, in the form of the beggar, extracts water from seven mountains to paint the shape of a rabbit on the moon and disappeared. From then on, people often see the image of a rabbit sitting on the Moon from the Earth”.

Khmer people usually wait until the 15th of the lunar month to make green rice from freshly-harvested sticky rice – a special dish believed to be most favored by the rabbit – in order to remember, honor, and worship the animal that had sacrificed itself for the lives of others. This ritual is known as Ok Om Bok Festival – ranked high on the list of most important holidays in Vietnam – aims to worship the moon.

Fascinating festival activities

Ok Om Bok festival, recognized as one of the biggest and most important holidays in Vietnam, takes place on the 14th and 15th day of lunar October, aiming at worshipping the Moon and praying for wealth and a fruitful season.

In Khmer’s beliefs, the moon is respectfully considered the god of richness and good harvests so that every Khmer family spends time celebrating Ok Om Bok on these days. This festival is often held in Tra Vinh and Soc Trang – the two provinces with the largest Khmer population.

The indispensable offerings, which include green rice, taros, sweet potatoes, fruits, sweets, and candies, are prepared months before the official beginning of the festival.

Moon worshipping with local specialties (Source: Google)

Moon worshipping with local specialties (Source: Google)

The next preparation is the construction of the bamboo gate. The gate is made up of two huge bamboo pillars and an arch with braided coconut leaves and flowers. Above the gate is decorated with a string of 12 betel leaves, symbolizing for the 12 months of a year. Moreover, a string of 7 areca nut fruits in the shape of a bee’s wings, represents 7 days in a week. Under the gate, the offerings are arranged neatly to show great respect towards the Moon.

After adding the last touch to the preparations, on the 14th or 15th of the Full moon, Khmer people gather in their yards or temples, focus on the Moon to celebrate. The ritual master role is often assigned to the oldest person in the community, who is responsible for making a speech to express gratitude towards the Moon, offering the gifts, and asking for good health and a prosperous year.

Afterwards, children are given green rice flakes (cốm dẹp) and receive pats on the back several times. Besides, their wishes are believed to become the faith and motivation for adults in the next year.

According to the traditional custom of the Khmer, the end of the “Worshipping the Moon” ritual signals the start of exciting festival activities, among which is the “Ghe Ngo” Race. This is a famous and exciting rite among Khmer community with the purpose of sending the God of Water back to the ocean respectfully and honoring Nagar – the God of Snake for turning itself into a chunk of wood to carry the Buddha across the river.

“Ghe ngo” race at Ok Om Bok Festival

Not only does “Ghe ngo” Race draw a great deal of attention from the locals, but it also attracts a huge amount of tourists. The teams, coming from different regions and areas, are divided into two main types: the already-ranked one from the previous year and the remaining ones.

A “Ghe Ngo”, a boat that is 22-24m in length and 1,2m in width, consists of 50-60 swimmers. Nowadays, due to the lack of huge wood trunks, “ghe ngo” is made of long planks paired together. The boat’s prow is decorated with beautiful and colorful patterns, along with different animal-shaped heads representing each boat.

The imposing view at “Ghe ngo” Race

The imposing view at “Ghe ngo” Race (Source: Google)

The thrilling and vibrant atmosphere of the race and the loud and cheerful encouragements from the attendants, create a unique and impressive vibe for the “Ghe ngo” race, making it a not-to-miss traditional cultural and sporting event of Khmer people.

Apart from the major festival activity “Ghe ngo” Race, there are numerous interesting activities waiting to be discovered such as playing “Snail” chess, Iron marbles,  performing “Ram Vong” dance, and floating water lanterns. The water lanterns are made from by banana chunks and decorated in the shape of a temple with colorful designs and patterns.

The top and around the lights are covered with flags and incense sticks. Inside is filled with offerings, not only to remember the Buddha but also to show remorse towards the God of Soil and Water for contaminating the water and damaging the land.

There would be a big mistake and regret not to include Ok Om Bok Festival in your important holidays in Vietnam for experiencing and exploring one of the most distinctive and impressive cultures and lifestyles of the Khmer in Vietnam

Tuong Vi

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