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Water Festival 1994

A NGKOR WAT - In an historic moment of joy and ambiance, shared by thousands of people, Siem Riep hosted its own boat races in front of the majesty of Angkor Wat.

For a while at least, there was little sign of the insecurity that, like elsewhere in the countryside, Siem Riep province faces as a daily phenomenon. For during the annual Water Festival, it was only fun-seekers, not internally-displaced people, who flooded into Siem Riep town.

Many marched from villages kilometers away, bringing kids and cooked rice, salt-fish or boiled eggs just in case of emergency.

There was none. Though, as thousands left their villages to enjoy the festivities, others were being forced to leave their houses burned down by the Khmer Rouge in other villages northwest of the town.

"I don't know what to say. I'm very happy," said Ngem Sahan, a 43-year-old woman who came from Srah Srang village to enjoy the festival.

It was the first time such a festival was held at Angkor Wat for decades. According to some elderly Cambodians, it was last organized in 1966, when French President Charles de Gaulle visited the country.

The atmosphere in the town was enthusiastic, not because of the boat races alone. Other events such as performances of Apsaras and other players in Ramayana legend, under the full moon that overlooked the towers of Angkor Wat, created a memorable ambiance.

Daylight faded as the boat races ended, and the full moon took its turn. The stones that shape Cambodia's ancient capital kept the night relatively warm by the heat they absorbed during day time, as more than 600 torch-carrying schoolchildren flanked both sides of the temple's steps.

It seemed a fitting reminder for today's Cambodians of their ancestors, whose creativity over 700 years ago still remains the symbol of unity and pride of this nation.

"It is a fantastic opportunity to see this traditional dance being returned to this temple under the full moon like this," said Professor Pierre Carteret, who traveled from Phnom Penh to witness it.

He, like many other foreigners, ignored warnings to leave the wat before sunset, choosing to stay and watch the traditional dances.

"I don't feel afraid, nor hungry and tired. When the moon is full like this, it is very difficult to sleep. It's better to dance," he said.

Earlier, more than 300 rowers took part in the races, presided over by Premier Norodom Ranariddh and his wife Marie.

Ranariddh was in an upbeat mood, despite all the four boats he supported losing on the water. In the final round of the women's competition, his boat lost not only to a boat of villagers from Sotr Nikum district, but was also beaten by one supported by his co-Premier Hun Sen. He complained it was unfair, because Hun Sen's boat had more rowers than his.

"It is not necessary that PMs' boats must win.

When people's boats win - that is what democracy is all about," he said.

The significance of the festival, Ranariddh said, was to demonstrate the revival of cultural values and the spirit of unity Cambodia needed in order to ensure stability and peace.

"I believe, though the Khmer Rouge refuse to join the national community, that all Khmers clearly understand that unity is the only way to the survival of our nation - there is no other symbol for that unity, except Angkor Wat temple."

He hoped the event, planned to be held every year, would attract more tourists to Angkor Wat.

He appeared jealous about the rising number of tourists going to neighboring Vietnam as compared to the Kingdom, which has seen its reputation damaged because of security problems.

"It is true that we have the seventh world wonder. Vietnam does not have it.

"But we do have Pol Pot and Vietnam does not. Thats my problem," he said.

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