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A million converge on capital

For three days of fireworks and races, clammy torrents and roasting heat, a mass

of humanity descended on Phnom Penh, rolling its way down the riverfront during the

annual Water Festival.

Going down with his ship, the coxswain of the Fine tobacco-sponsored boat sees the funny side of his craft being swamped by choppy waves during the annual Bon Om Tuk, known in English as the Water Festival. The unpredictable weather caused by the remnants of Typhoon Muifa thinned crowds on the first day of the three-day festival, but an estimated one million provincial visitors braved showers to enjoy dragon boat racing, pop concerts, al fresco dining, fireworks and fun.

It was sweaty, messy, loud and-for most-a lot of fun.

Of course, there were the usual glitches. Pickpockets and troublemakers roamed through

the crowd, filching wallets from disoriented tourists and getting too familiar with

girls caught in bottleneck zones. All the most dramatic beggars turned out-including

a boy with an elephant foot-worsening the human gridlock as passers-by stopped to


But officials say the event actually went much smoother this year than it has in

the past.

According to Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, an estimated one million people

converged on the capital for the holiday, taking up temporary residence and spending

a good deal of their time wandering the streets.

Yet only four offenders were arrested (two for pickpocketing, two for violence) compared

to more than 200 last year, said Heng Pov, the municipal police chief of Phnom Penh.

He predicted before the festival that criminal activity would be low "because

we have already arrested many offenders."

Heng Pov had also issued a strong directive to police officers not to indulge in

the common practice of being soft on offenders in exchange for bribe money. "The

crimes will not happen if the police do not conspire with the offenders," he


Some 10,000 police and private security company staff were assigned to the festival.

Despite the security challenges posed by a massive influx of people, the three days

(November 25-27) of intense longboat racing, illuminated floats on barges and brilliant

fireworks displays were hugely successful. New monarch King Norodom Sihamoni turned

out with pomp, performing tasks previously undertaken by his father.

A 360 degree panoramic view of crowds watching boat racing on the Tonle Sap river, was achieved by using a tripod-mounted Nikon D70 digital camera through an 18-70 mm lens at fixed focus. Fifteen frames were stitched together using computer software (Paul Stewart)

Frequent squalls took their toll. Organisers said more than 40 of the 366 competing

boats were swamped by waves and had to be rescued.

All public parks and other open areas near the riverfront were alive with food and

merchandise stalls and at night the city throbbed and vibrated with high-volume music,

theatre and dancing performed on more than a dozen concert stages. They kept going

through all but the most torrential showers.

An unidentified boat powers along in the current, the cox beating a rhythm in the bows.

Many visitors came from the provinces to support their racing crews. They brought

with them shelters, beds, fires, and food (even live pigs and chickens) to sustain


The racing

The start line is 100 meters from the Japanese bridge and the finish is 1.7 kilometers

downstream in front of the Royal Palace. There are no prescribed dimensions for the



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