Bon Om Touk

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Bon Om Touk
Cambodia Water Festival 1914.jpg
Cambodian Water Festival celebration in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1914.
Official nameKhmer: ព្រះរាជពិធីបុណ្យអុំទូក បណ្ដែតប្រទីប អកអំបុក និងសំពះព្រះខែ (The Royal Boat Racing Festival, Lanterns Floating, Taste the Ambok and Worship the Moon)
Also calledBon Om Touk
Cambodian Water Festival
Observed byCambodians
SignificanceMarks the Cambodian Water Festival
2020 date30–31–01 October & November
2021 date18–19–20 November
2022 date7–8–9 November
2023 date26–27–28 November
Related toLoi Krathong (in Thailand and Laos), Il Poya (in Sri Lanka) Tazaungdaing festival (in Myanmar), Boita Bandana (in Odisha, India)

Bon Om Touk (Khmer: បុណ្យអុំទូក, Bŏn Om Tuk, lit. "Boat Racing Festival"), or the Cambodian Water Festival, is a Cambodian festival. It is celebrated in late October or early November, often corresponding with the lunar Mid-Autumn Festival. It marks the end of the monsoon season. The festivities are accompanied by dragon boat races similar to those seen in the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival.

The festival goes for three days and commemorates the end of the country's rainy season[1] as well as the change in flow of the Tonlé Sap River.[2] The festival attracts several million people every year.[1][3] Some of the activities that take place are boat races along the Sisowath Quay riverfront, fireworks, and evening concerts.


Goddess Ganga in Cambodia art, drawing by San Art

The Water Festival is among the major national festivals in Cambodia. It is held every November, but sometimes falls in late October, depending on the rainy month of the fishing season. The festival is a celebration that marks the reversal of the flow of water from the Tonle Sap River back from the Great Lake to the Mekong River at Phnom Penh, which is the conjunction of four rivers, known as Chaktomuk.

The festival celebrations occur over three days, with the Royal Boat Race on the first day. After the boat race, large lanterns are released as part of the "Bondet Bratib" ceremony at 6:00 pm as representatives from national institutions pray for peace from Preah Mae Kongkea or the Goddess Ganga. Each ministry has its lantern adorned with colorful lights and sets off fireworks to celebrate the river's rich glory.

While the goddess originates from Hindu mythology surrounding the Ganga river in India and there is no Ganga river in Khmer,[4] the goddess is viewed as the mother of seas, rivers, streams, creeks, and lakes. She protects and provides the water for human and animal husbandry and the flow of sediments and fish. Khmer also has a sacred river, Tonle Sap, and festival goers communicate their love and respect for nature to the goddess through prayers of gratitude for the goddess' compassion. Prayers give thanks for happiness and fruitful fishing in daily life.

The second day of the festival is the day of Og Ambok and involves the worship of the Moon. It takes place at twelve minutes past midnight and invokes a lantern lighting ceremony with prayers to Preah Purthisat, who invented the legend of a moon rabbit. The Og Ambok ceremony involves playing a group game where members must make each other laugh; whoever lasts the longest wins and decides who the loser is. The loser must then eat Ambok with bananas until the end of the day.

On the last day, a ribbon is cut, signifying the end of the boat race and the Water and Moon Festival.

Royal Boat Racing Festival (Om Touk)[edit]

Historical event[edit]

Khmer warriors on their long naval boat in the battle of Tonle Sap. Bayon Temple. 12th century.

Boat racing is believed to have been celebrated in Cambodia since the reign of Jayavarman VII in 1181 AD to the present, This was to commemorate the heroic victory of the Khmer navy, which liberated their land from the Cham troops of the Champa Kingdom in a boat battle on the Tonle Sap Lake.[5]: 120–121 

Literary record[edit]

According to the record of Thach Pen alias "Piko (Pang Khat)" from the Khleang Province (Soc Trang), Kampuchea Krom (Southern Vietnam), in 1528 AD, King Ang Chan I ordered Ponhea Tat, the commander of the Khmer navy in the Bassac District of Kampuchea Krom, to prepare the Khmer army to defend the province of Preah Trapeang (Tra Vinh, Vietnam), which was under attack from the Đại Việt kingdom under Mạc Đăng Dung.

The naval boats were divided into three groups:

  • Group 1, called the "Toap Srouch", or vanguard, and the boats shaped like today's racing boats are called Ngor boats.
  • Group 2, called the reserve army, and two rows of rowing boats shaped like today's stand racing boats.
  • Group 3, called the Bassac Troops, is a large, very long open boat with a roof across the front, oars and sails, shaped like the Bassac boat, called the Pok Chay boat. The boat is only used at night with lanterns, as a food supply boat for the army, delivering rice from Kampong Chhnang to Kampuchea Krom in Preah Trapeang Province until the Cambodian navy won.[6]

After his victory, concurrent with the crowning of King Ang Chan I in 1529 AD, he celebrated the Bondet Bratib ceremony every year with candles at night to commemorate the victory over the Đại Việt and to give thanks to the goddess Ganga (Preah Mae Kongkea in Khmer language).[7][8][9][10]

French protectorate[edit]

Cambodian racing boat at Phnom Penh near Wat Phnom in the background as depicted in 1873 Le Magasin Pittoresque publication of King Norodom.

As early as 1873, depictions of a Cambodian racing boat appeared in the French publication Le Magasin Pittoresque, and in 1887 the French magazine Les Colonies Françaises dedicated several pages to the meaning of the Water Festival. The festival had been celebrated occasionally after Phnom Penh became Cambodia's capital in 1866 during the French Protectorate period. After World War II, the Water Festival was also celebrated in Phnom Penh in 1945, and then in 1953, after the Independence of Cambodia from France. In the 1960s, the scope of the festival grew with a doubled number of boats participating in the Phnom Penh boat racing festival. The festival had been interrupted many times and then suspended during the Cambodian Civil War.[11][12][13] The Water Festival has been celebrated again since the 1993 General Election supervised by UNTAC until now. However, it frequently has been suspended because of incidents, natural disasters, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.[14]

Dancing on the racing boats[edit]

Dancing on the racing boats Origin in the 16th century

The art of dancing on the bow of a boat has been around for many years. Locals believe it represents a boat keeper's soul or a boat spirit, which may be the spirit of the person who took care of the boat by lighting incense Sen Pren invited before the team took their boat to race officially in the Royal Water Festival.[clarification needed] The tradition of having women dance on the bow of the boat continues to this day. Boat bow dancing also features a man representing the boat's coxswain, shouting for his team to operate in unison, energetically and harmoniously, to reach their destination. Racing boats are always painted with eyes, which make the boat seem alive, and represent dragons floating on the water.[15]

Winners of boat race (2010 - 2020)[edit]

The boat race ranking in the Royal Water and Moon Festival, and awards by the King of Cambodia.[16]

Year Rating Boats name Boats capacity Location
2021 N/A Water Festival suspended due to COVID-19 outbreak N/A N/A
2020 N/A Water Festival suspended due to COVID-19 outbreak N/A N/A
2019 No. 1 Saray Decho Sen Chey 77 people Kandal Province
2018 No. 1 Koh Kae Sen Chey Baramey Preah Ang Khmao 77 people Preah Vihear Province
2017 No. 1 Saray Decho Sen Chey 77 people Kandal Province
2016 No. 1 Kdam Brai 64 people Kampong Chhnang Province
2015 N/A Water Festival suspended because the water level was too low. Political demonstrations were also suspected as a reason for the cancellation.[17] N/A N/A
2014 No. 1 Srey Sros Kien Chrey Baramey Decho 75 people Kampong Cham Province
2013 N/A Water Festival suspended due to national election N/A N/A
2012 N/A Water Festival suspended due to death of King Norodom Sihanouk N/A N/A
2011 N/A Water Festival suspended due to deadly stampede on Koh Pich Bridge in 22 November 2010, which took the lives of 350 people. N/A N/A
2010 No. 1 Prithea Char Moha Decho Sen Chey (Enemy Pepper) 72 people Kampong Cham Province

Festival of Illuminated Floats (Bondet Bratib)[edit]

Bratib (ប្រទីប)[edit]

Early forms of illuminated floats during the Water Festival Celebration during the French colonial period in 1945 after the end of World War 2.
Illuminated float (Bratib) of National Assembly of Cambodia during the night of Water Festival.

"Bratib (ប្រទីប)" refers to lanterns and lamps. In Khmer, small lamps without glass are used: light lantern frames or figurines are placed on a boat or raft. Some are illuminated floating water lanterns lined up in a row, in a frame, or vertically, shining brightly for the festival.[18] The Cambodian Lantern Festival is similar to India's "Ganga puja" or "Ganga Dussehra," which is celebrated every year to pay homage to the Goddess Ganga. The Lantern Floating Ceremony is for Cambodians to remember their gratitude towards the water that is essential to sustain their lives. Floating lanterns are launched, dedicated to both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the Buddhist dedication, mentioned in the Pali Khmer version Teathavong scripture Tathagata Pali, it is stated that the four glass jaws of the Buddha Samma Samputa are in four places:

This festival consecrates Preah Chongkhoum Keo (the tooth relics of Buddha). The Khmer people conduct this festival during the full moon of November in the belief that great merit and prosperity will be provided to the country.

According to Pali Pheana Veara, it is said that the Buddha's footprints are located in five directions: Sovann Mealika Barapoat, Sovann Barapoat, Sovann Koda Barapoat, Yoonka Borei, and Stoeng Neamatea.[citation needed] In the prose and Pali praise of Preah Bath, "Yortha Bate", it is also said that Buddha's footprints are located in five directions as mentioned in Pheana Veara.

Bondet Bratib is believed by the Khmer people to have taken place in the eighth century; the original name floating "Bay Sey" or Bondet "Bay Sey" (បាយសី) in the Chenla period, the original Khmer religion depicting the people before the Angkorian period celebrating the rituals. "Preah Mae Kongkea", the Khmer goddess or guardian deity of the water, is revered by the Cambodian people to this day.[19]

Differences between Loy Bratib and Loy Kantong[edit]

Kantong (កន្ទោង)[edit]

Royal concubines dedicating and holding kantong (containers made from leaves with ritual objects) as depicted at the 12th century Bayon temple, which is the origin of today's Loy Kantong.
Kantong, a container made from leaves with flowers and offerings

"Kantong (កន្ទោង)" means plates, utensils made of leaves for food, slaw and cigarettes.[20] Kantong festival in September with the last day of Cambodia Pchum Ben Day floating to the Spirit Ghost, Demon, and Soul.

Cambodians stopped floating Kantong in the 1960s because of water pollution. Kantong dates back to the Angkorian Empire, based on the bas relief of Bayon temple, the recorded documents by a Cambodian culturalist named Mr. Tran Ngea, professor of cultural archeology of Director of Khmer Mon Institute 1972. The ordinary people made their Kantong from banana trees decorated with flowers, leaves, candles and incense, with some foods floating as offerings to send relatives for the last time on the occasion of the opening of the gates of hell.[21]

Festival of Og Ambok and Sampeah Preah Khae[edit]

Og Ambok[edit]

Og Ambok
Ak Ambok.jpg
Traditional rice dish of the Cambodian Bon Om Touk Festival, served with coconut and grapes in an ordinary Khmer household.

Og Ambok (Khmer: អកអំបុក, IPA: [ʔog ɑmboːk]) is a traditional flattened rice dish that forms part of the Bon Om Tuk ceremony. During the festival, it is traditional to eat Ambok with coconut juice and banana.[22]

Og Ambok is made by frying rice in its natural husks, then beating it in a pestle until soft before the husks are removed and mixed in with banana and coconut juice for flavor. This mixture is eaten when the clock strikes midnight, or when the incense offered at the beginning of the gathering, is consumed. Og Ambok remains a popular traditional dish and it is sold widely during the Bon Om Touk festival.[23]

The Legend of Og Ambok[edit]

The Og Ambok ceremony's history dates back a long time. It is believed that in the reign of King Barom Reachea III, he dreamed of Indra. Fighting with a demon in the Longvek fortress, he saw Indra throwing a ray of lightning to kill the beast. Suddenly the sound of thunder from the lightning strike awakened him. In the morning, he sent his officers to inspect the surrounding land in Banteay Longvek and found the site of a real lightning strike. The King started "Krong Peali", offering a ceremony to pray to the deities of the eight gods directions for three days. He ordered the army to build a pagoda to worship Indra, called "Indra Pagoda", in Kampong Chhnang Province and later changed its name to Wat Preah Indra Tep by building a statue of the Buddha in Kampong Chhnang. When the pagoda's construction was completed, he organized this ceremony to spread the ambok.[24][25]


On the second day of the Royal Water Festival, a special commemoration of Lord Indra is celebrated. The reversal of the Tonle Sap suggests why a parallel could be drawn between the Khmer people and Lord Indra. Indra is the one who releases the water from the winter demon. This is the most common theme of the Rigveda concerning Lord Indra: he as the god with thunderbolt kills the evil serpent Vritra that held back rains and thus releases rains, nourishing rivers.[26] For example, the Rigvedic hymn 1.32 dedicated to Indra reads:

इन्द्रस्य नु वीर्याणि प्र वोचं यानि चकार प्रथमानि वज्री ।
अहन्नहिमन्वपस्ततर्द प्र वक्षणा अभिनत्पर्वतानाम् ॥१।।
अहन्नहिं पर्वते शिश्रियाणं त्वष्टास्मै वज्रं स्वर्यं ततक्ष ।
वाश्रा इव धेनवः स्यन्दमाना अञ्जः समुद्रमव जग्मुरापः ॥२।।

Let me tell you the manly deeds of Indra, which he first accomplished, bolt-weaponed,
He slew the serpent, opened up waters, cleft in twain the belly of mountains, ॥1।।
He slew the serpent on the mountain, with a heavenly bolt made by Tvastar,
Like lowing cattle downward sped the waters, then flowed to the ocean. ॥2।।[27]

—Rigveda, 1.32.1–2[28]

Dal Ambok[edit]

During this ceremony, 4 or 5 punchers are assigned to help, and there may be 2 or 3 rookers in each group. Assemblers are assigned to collect Angre mortars and search for shredded wood. Normally, at Moha Ambok, 30 to 50 mortars are used to make this ceremony solemn. So they prepared 8 or 30 groups of people to participate in this event. The Og Ambok ceremony is performed when the Moon is straight or when the Moon is directly overhead. The he young men come to the central table and dance in groups lined up with lanterns. Another woman grabs the ombok and pours the ombus into the man's mouth. The Official call Og Ambok Repeatedly this is repeated, asking, "Is it full?" Comes out loud, not sure full. And they continue to chant until the end of the Moon worship. The meaning of the Og Ambok ceremony confirms the abundance of their food stored throughout the year.[29]

Legend of the Cheadok: The Moon Rabbit[edit]

The image of a rabbit and mortar delineated on the Moon's surface

In the Buddhist Jataka tales called Cheadok in its Khmer version, Tale 316 relates that a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit resolved to practice charity on the day of the full moon (Uposatha), believing a demonstration of great virtue would earn a great reward. According to the Khmer version of the popular legend in the Sovannasam Cheadok (ជាតក), this rabbit is called Pothisat. Every full moon, this holy rabbit would offer his life to someone who wanted to become a Buddha. One full moon, the god Indra found out and tested the animals about this. He presented himself under the appearance of an old Brahman of Hinduism, and asked the rabbit called Sasabandit for food. The rabbit did not have much food and he agreed to give his life to the old Brahman for food. But the old Brahman said, "This rabbit has observed moral precepts for a long time, so he cannot be killed." Then the rabbit told the old man to make a fire, and then jumped into the fire to kill himself, so that the old man could eat him. But before he jumped into the fire, he quietly wished that he could stay alive. Later the old Brahman transformed himself into Indra and said that pure alms-giving is a virtue. Indra called to the Goddess Ganga to make the image of the rabbit appear in the Moon forever after his death. According to this legend, the rabbit can be seen in the middle of the Moon today.[30]

Salutation of the Moon: Sampeah Preah Khae[edit]

The Sampeah Preah Khae (Khmer: សំពះព្រះខែ, IPA: [sɑmpeəʰ preəʰ kʰaːe]; "Moon salutation") is a Buddhist religious festival which is dedicated to the Moon and coincides with the Royal Water Festival. Sampeah Preah Khae takes place on the last day of the Royal Water Festival. Cambodians usually set up an array of offerings in the form of fruits that are popular with rabbits, such as Ambok, banana, coconut, yam or sweet potato, as well as drink and light incense in front of their homes at night before gathering at pagodas at midnight for the third ceremony, Ak Ambok.[31] They remember the life of Pouthesat the moon rabbit. The full moon determines the date of the entire festival. Cambodian people celebrate these two festivals around this time also because this is when bananas, coconuts, yam and sweet potatoes are in abundance.[32] After the Sampeah Preah Khae ceremony, devout Buddhists gather at a pagoda at midnight for the rites associated with Ak Ambok.[33]

In the middle of the night, household usually gather to burn incense first, and make small offerings such as ambok, coconut juice and bananas. Once consumed, adults usually take a handful of ambok to feed it into the mouth of younger children as a sign of care and goodwill. While holding their noses, children open their mouth and look at the Moon, usually making a wish, remembering the generosity of the altruistic rabbit as a model. Apart from these domestic rituals, Khmer people usually enjoy gambling as a group during the festival.[34]

History of the dragon Makor[edit]

Makor is a Sanskrit word meaning "sea dragon" or "strange sea creature". This word is the origin of the word "mugger" (गुंडा) in Hindi. In Hindi, the crocodile is called मकर (Makar or Makarak). It is said that there was Asura, an ascetic named Vritra, who ruled over dragons and stopped all water from flooding, causing drought across the region. People began to pray to the gods for help. Immediately, a beautiful angel untied her hair and came down to create a water source in the area. People were very happy and named her "Goddess Ganga". At that moment, a single strand of hair of the Ganges fell to the ground, and it became the sea dragon or water-monster, Makara or Makor in Khmer, stronger than any other animal in the world. It also swallowed up all the creatures it encountered, whether humans, Singha as lions and Nāga dragons. Since no one was able to subdue the monster, Shiva came down to face the Makor, promising the Ganges that if the god Shiva could catch the monster, she would marry him. "Preah Eyso" as Siva also came down to face "Makor" for many days, still not knowing how to win or lose. "Kongkea" also told "Eyso" that if you want to subdue me, you can only lift me up and put me on the palm of your hand and the goddess "Kongkea" used her hair to drop into the water to suck out all the water and leave it alone on land. The Makor, which was an aquatic animal, turned into a Singha as lion's foot. Shiva, with great weight, sat and pressed on the beast, unable to withstand the weight of him. "Makor" is willing to surrender to Shiva by the ferocious power of the beast. Shiva held the animal's mouth into the elephant's trunk and the beast promised to spit it out. Since then, Shiva has used animals as vehicles. Makor transformed to Gajasimha and changed names to "Koch Jor Sey" which is related to "Reach Sey". The King Lion, protector of Kingdom of Cambodia made the symbols of the royal arms of Cambodia. The dragon boat races can be seen as a reenactment of these mythological battles.[35]


The Royal Water Festival, which lasts for three days, was recorded for the first time under the reign of King Norodom in 1873 and follows a precise ritual. Dragon boats from every major pagoda in Cambodia, come to Phnom Penh and compete for three entire days during daylight in elimination rounds until the final race on the third day. In the evening around 6:00 pm, a prayer is said for peace to Preah Mae Kongkea and a candle is lit by the King. Following this prayer, illuminated floating boats parade on the Tonle Sap, accompanied by fireworks. The illuminated floating boats represent the various royal ministries of Cambodia.

Classification of the dragon boats[edit]

It is difficult to make a precise list of the various dragon boats involved in the race. The earliest French documents show boat carvings from the temples of Banteay Chhmar and the temple of Bayon. Khmer architecture is used to design various types of boats, such as:

World's Longest Dragon Boat
Kambojika Putta Khemara Tarei (front).jpg

Recent history[edit]

Phnom Penh resumed Water Festival celebrations in 1990,[36] following a 20-year break under the Lon Nol regime and then the genocidal Khmer Rouge. A few of Phnom Penh's many foreign residents started participated in the featured boat races in the mid-1990s, though in the first year of participation, their boat capsized along with two other teams in the wake of a larger ship.[36] In 2008, five rowers drowned, and one rower drowned in 2009 during the boat races.[37]

The celebration turned tragic in 2010, when thousands became trapped and a stampede occurred on the bridge between Phnom Penh and Diamond Island, killing 351 people and injuring 395 more.[38] Rumors spread that it was caused by fear of a coming storm or electrical shock from faulty wiring, and authorities ultimately laid blame on the swaying of the bridge.[39]

Phnom Penh authorities came under fire in 2016 for sanitation, after videos of cleaning crews sweeping trash into the Tonle Sap incited anger on social media.[40]

Upriver dams and a devastating drought in 2019 brought the Mekong to its lowest level ever recorded. The combination has left the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia's largest fresh-water lake, in crisis. The reversal of the Tonle Sap river lasted just six weeks, which may have consequences on fishing in the region.[41]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ "Hundreds Die in Stampede on Cambodian Island". The New York Times. 22 November 2010. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
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  5. ^ Higham, C., 2001, The Civilization of Angkor, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 9781842125847
  6. ^ Piko (Pang Khat) Culture - Civilization - Khmer - India 1970 elibrary Published: 2016
  7. ^ Treng Ngea Khmer History Part 1 and Part 2 1973 elibrabry Published: 11 April 2014
  8. ^ Eng Soth, Lim Yan (1969). ឯកសារមហាបុរសខ្មែរ (ព្រះរាជពង្សាវតារខ្មែរ). Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport 2009.
  9. ^ Eng Soth (1969). Moha Boros Khmer volume-1-7. eLibrary of Cambodia (published 29 August 2014).
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  14. ^ Khoeun Sakheng ប្រវត្តិសង្ខេប នៃព្រះរាជពិធីបុណ្យអុំទូក 2020
  15. ^ Eng Soth (1969) Documents of the Great Khmer-Earth of King Khon Published: 2014
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  19. ^ "Khmer Online Dictionary".
  20. ^ Choun Nath dictionary
  21. ^ Kantong meaning Khmer dictionary
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  25. ^ Hoc Dy Khing, Original from the University of Michigan, général sur la littérature khmère L'Harmattan, 1997 ISBN 2738451403 p.205
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  27. ^ Hervey De Witt Griswold (1971). The Religion of the Ṛigveda. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 178. ISBN 978-81-208-0745-7.
  28. ^ ऋग्वेद: सूक्तं १.३२, Wikisource Rigveda Sanskrit text
  29. ^ Meach Pon, Director of the Office of the Khmer Traditional Church of the Buddhist Institute, 1960.
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  34. ^ "Khmer History by Mrs.Treong Ngea". savphov. 15 August 2018.
  35. ^ Collection of Khmer Legends (1963) the University of Michigan Publisher: Buddhasāsana Paṇḍity Date: 22 May 2006
  36. ^ a b ppp_webadmin (7 November 2003). "Barang enter Mekong Spirit in Water Festival". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  37. ^ "Cambodia Water Festival turns tragic with deadly stampede". Christian Science Monitor. 22 November 2010. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
  38. ^ Doherty, Ben (23 November 2010). "Cambodian stampede: Phnom Penh counts the cost of water festival disaster". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  39. ^ "Cambodia stampede: swaying bridge blamed for panic". The Guardian. Associated Press. 24 November 2010. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  40. ^ Vichea, Pang (16 November 2016). "Video shows workers sweeping Water Festival trash directly into Tonle Sap". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  41. ^ "The Lake That Feeds The Mekong Basin Is Facing A Shortage Of Fish".