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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Early crowds thin for return of Water Festival

Teams gather on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh
Teams gather on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh, preparing to race their boats, on the first day of the Water Festival yesterday morning. Heng Chivoan

Early crowds thin for return of Water Festival

The Kingdom’s first Water Festival in four years got off to a subdued start yesterday, with far fewer boats, attendees and sales for vendors than in 2010, when tragedy brought about the suspension of the much-loved celebration.

While the pageantry was on display around the capital – with food and gift stalls, traditional boat races, fireworks and music – those who had joined the celebrations in previous years said the streets and riverbanks were worlds away from the jam-packed crowds of the past.

The comparatively sparse turnout didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of long-time festival-goer Pao Sao, 48, who said that she was “very happy” to make the journey from her hometown in Prey Veng for the three-day celebration.

“I have really missed Water Festival, and I’m so glad I came here,” she said as she walked along the riverside yesterday afternoon. “I think this year is good, because there aren’t many people who have come to visit.”

The Water Festival boat competition begins on the Tonle Sap river
The Water Festival boat competition begins on the Tonle Sap river for the first time in four years as participating teams prepare their boats to compete yesterday afternoon. Heng Chivoan

A number of revellers and vendors told the Post yesterday that they knew people who had chosen to stay away from the celebrations for fear of disaster.

But as she headed towards Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, the site of 2010’s tragic bridge stampede, Sao said she was not afraid.

“I am not worried, because if something happens, the government will be responsible,” she said.

Another woman from Prey Veng, 58-year-old Sao Sang, said she was confident the celebrations would run smoothly.

“There are not many people here, and I can see they are well-prepared with security. No one wants to see a bad thing happen, so I hope this year will be a good year,” she said.

Police watching over the celebrations, who said that they were being paid a daily bonus of $5, told the Post that with the smaller crowds, crime was also at a low.

“No cases of stealing have been reported yet,” said Chea Saphon, a police officer guarding a roadblock near riverside.

In addition to the visible security presence, the streets were dotted with ambulances and temporary health-care centres, though staff said they had been little used to that point.

Meng Long, a doctor from the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said early yesterday evening that he had only dealt with minor ailments.

King Norodom Sihamoni applauds passing boats from his stand at the riverfront in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon
King Norodom Sihamoni applauds passing boats from his stand at the riverfront in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon. Heng Chivoan

“We haven’t had people who have fainted, just some people with headaches,” he said, adding that the thinner crowds had helped in reducing the number of potential patients.

But while many celebrated the change in pace, others were left disappointed.

Food vendor Nang Mai, 25, who was selling a selection of cooked chicken and insects, said that the first day of the Water Festival had brought in just one sale.

“People just walk by but don’t buy anything,” she said. “In the past, I could sell 50 to 60 birds every day.”

Mai added that while she too was afraid of tragedy striking again, she had no choice but to set up shop on the capital’s streets.

“I am scared, but I have to do business, because I need money to support my family,” she said.

Noodle vendor Sie Sokha also said the first day of the usually profitable festival had been fruitless.

“I haven’t sold even one plate, because there are not as many people here as in the past,” she said.

Also drawn to the festival by potential sales, Sokha said it was difficult to enjoy the celebrations.

“I am trying to sell, but in my mind, I’m still thinking about how to escape if something happens.… I am still afraid of Koh Pich,” she said.

And while boat races entertained the crowd – including honorary spectators Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni – even they were not the spectacle they once were.

Boat racers from provinces all around Cambodia participate in the first day of the Water Festival on the Tonle Sap
Boat racers from provinces all around Cambodia participate in the first day of the Water Festival on the Tonle Sap. Heng Chivoan

Bou Chumserey, chairman of the boat-racing technical control committee, said that so far this year, just 245 boats have joined the festival, compared with 441 in 2010.

“The number of boats has decreased this year because of the [festival being] interrupted for three years,” he said. “Some of the boats’ commissioners did not prepare in advance, and their rowers might have migrated to find jobs in other provinces and cities across the nation and to foreign countries such as Korea and Japan.”

Tit Ros, 48, a boat racer for Sovan Machha Changva Molpich from Kandal province, said that his team had felt unprepared for the competition.

“We haven’t had enough time [to train], because they told us about Water Festival this year only a month in advance,” he said.

He added that the team had also noticed a drop in support.

“A lot of people in my village did not allow their families to come to visit Phnom Penh because they are afraid,” he said.

But, he added, having won one race and lost the other, his team was hopeful that they could still place in the top three in the tough competition. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA

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