Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians from across the country are expected to converge on Phnom Penh next month after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced yesterday that boat racing will return to the Tonle Sap river for this year’s Water Festival, which runs from November 27 to 29.
The streets of Phnom Penh seemed bare last year – at least, compared to previous festivals – after the government cancelled the boat races, the festival’s hugely popular central draw.
Authorities cited widespread flooding across the country as a reason for the cancellation. However, it was suggested by some that memories of the Koh Pich stampede, which claimed the lives of 353 people on the final day of the 2010 festival, also played a part in the decision.
“Last year, we cancelled boat racing because of all the flooding, but this year we will celebrate boat racing as normal – so please prepare,” Hun Sen said.
Chea Kean, deputy secretary-general of the national and international festivals organising committee, said he had sent details of this year’s boat races to provinces across the country and was now waiting for entries.
“I expect that there will be more boats joining in the racing this year,” he said. “I think it will be the same as in 2010, and I think that a lot of Cambodian people will participate in this ceremony because it is our traditional ceremony.”
About 400 boats took part in boat racing in 2010, Kean said.
One person happy to see racing return to the river is Hong Chat, who plans to enter a selection of boats in the event.
“I will definitely race this year, like I do every year. The only year I didn’t was last year, when it was cancelled,” he said.
“This year, we’ve prepared five or six boats to join in the Water Festival.”
As a warm-up, he said, he will race in Battambang on October 29 and 30.
Chat said he loved the excitement of competing in the annual event, but he wanted to make it clear he wasn’t planning on taking to the Tonle Sap merely for a pleasant cruise.
“I expect to win, and I want to win. When I’m racing, I’m always out to win,” he said.
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