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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Water festival attracts more than one million

Water festival attracts more than one million

water.jpg
water.jpg

Hun Sen Park overflowed with the detritus of celebration on Friday morning, November

18, after the final day of the annual Water Festival. Tents and hawker stalls stood

empty, waiting to be dismantled and stored away. A multicolored, knee-high pile of

deflated balloons along the street signaled the end of the three-day party, and the

return to workaday life in Phnom Penh.

A women's team races on the Tonle Sap. Among more than 20,000 competitors in 399 boats were 633 women.

The Water Festival's planning committee reported that an estimated 1.5 million people

converged on the capital for the first day of the celebration on November 15. That

number surged to two million on November 16 and 17, according to the committee.

The Ministry of Finance reported that the government spent $225,000 on the festival,

down $25,000 from last year.

Minister of Tourism Lay Prahas estimated a smaller number - one million on the second

day of the festival - but said more people attended this year's festival than last

year.

"We also had more foreign visitors from other countries," he said. "People

came here and seemed to be very happy."

Prahas said the ministry's efforts to attract more regional interest in Cambodia's

Water Festival had paid off. Though Thailand won the festival's first Greater Mekong

Subregion Boat Race-which included nearly two dozen teams from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam,

Thailand and Myanmar-Prahas said the event encouraged solidarity between the neighboring

countries.

He said that next year the ministry would work to expand international participation

in the races.

"I plan to ask the Cambodian government to invite participation from the other

ASEAN nations, to include countries like Korea and Japan in the festival," Prahas

said.

But the government's efforts to burnish Cambodia's image for outsiders left at least

one group of citizens out in the cold.

Water Festival organizers banned HIV/AIDS awareness spots on radio and television

from being aired during the boat races, citing concerns about tourists' perception

of the problem in Cambodia.

And local media reported that festival organizers extended the ban on Wednesday to

the name of a boat manned by HIV-positive rowers. The boat, named Eisei Senchey Fighting

AIDS, was intended to reduce the stigma surrounding people with HIV. Though the boat

was allowed to race, festival organizers dropped "Fighting AIDS" from its

official name out of concern that it would reflect poorly on Cambodia's image as

a tourist destination.

For Phnom Penh residents who remained in town for the celebration, the Water Festival

meant playing host to sometimes dozens of family members from the provinces. Toun

Srey Pov, 28, welcomed nine members of her family from Kampong Cham into her small

home. Srey Pov, who normally operates a stall near the Russian Market, put her business

acumen to use selling foodstuffs from two orange coolers near the National Assembly.

It was her first time as a vendor during the Water Festival, and she said she was

pleased with the 109,000 riel she netted over the three days.

On Friday morning, workers near the race's finish line disassembled neon-colored

floats representing government ministries. Across Sisowath Quay, nearly 100 men milled

about outside the Permanent Office of the Committee of National and International

Ceremony, home of the festival's organizing committee.

Pi Than, 30, was there to pick up his prize from the races. Than's boat, from Kampong

Thom province, took second prize. He said he was unsure whether he would receive

rice, noodles or cash from the government in exchange for his efforts.

"First-place winners get more, we will get less," he said.

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