LONG before the first vendor from the provinces unrolled her woven mat and set down her bundle of wares, the organisers of this year’s Water Festival in Phnom Penh anticipated low attendance. Typhoon Ketsana left tens of thousands of families struggling to rebuild and replant, cut off from roads and waterways and in a far-from-festive mood. The effects of the global economic crisis further tightened household budgets, and even without these disasters, the 2009 festival simply couldn’t compare to last year’s all-out extravaganza, which coincided with the 575th anniversary of Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s 55th Independence Day.
Sure enough, the turnout was low: Upwards of 2 million Cambodians usually pour into the capital for the Water Festival. This year, official estimates put that number at 1 million. In Siem Reap last year, 30,000 visitors joined in the festivities, whereas this year it was only 24,000.
Far from putting a gloomy cast on the first days of the dry season, however, this year’s Water Festival went to show that outside of the boat races, Bon Om Tuk is more than just a competition; it’s a national party.
On the whole, Sok Penhvuth, deputy governor of Daun Penh district, considered this year’s attendees a good bunch. “This year, the number of people who attended the Water Festival was less than we expected: it was about one million people, but I am proud of the people who came to visit this year,” he said. “They are respectful and orderly.” The smaller crowd meant this year’s festival was cleaner and safer than usual.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said: “This year was very well managed. We kept everything in good order – vendors along the street, security, traffic and garbage.”
Overall visitor numbers dwindled, but racing teams fell only from 424 to 391. In heat after heat, for three days, rowers hove in for all they were worth to propel their dragon boats over the finish line. Sisowath Quay was lined with spectators, shoving and rubbernecking, egged on by loudspeakers blaring out the boaters’ rallying cries and the frenetic commentary of an announcer who sounded like he was one upset away from diving into the water himself.
There were heavily attended concerts, nightly salvoes of fireworks and a village of vending booths in the NagaWorld parking lot. At the end of each night, when the racing boats were tethered and the stages empty, one could stroll along the riverfront, admiring the giant, floating lightbulb murals. Camping out below a portrait of the King, hundreds gathered in little circles for a final meal, a final drink, the smoke from cooking fires hanging in the air.
On Tuesday, the boulevards around Independence Monument were still packed with young people, vehicles turned away by heavily staffed police cordons. Everyone was trying to squeeze the last drop out of the festival before heading back home. Then the clouds gathered – a heavy rain began to fall. It was over.
Sadly, one boat racer died. Chea Sokhom, vice president and secretary general of the festival committee, identified the rower as Ly Phea, a 43-year-old from Koh Sotin district, Kampong Cham province, on the team Meas Srey Pich. The boat sank during the second day of racing. The other 73 rowers were rescued with no serious injuries.
Pen Khun, deputy chief of traffic police, said that from October 31 to November 3, “six people died in traffic accidents and some were arrested.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY RANN REUY