As the first day of the Water Festival rolled over Phnom Penh, the city was quiet.
The riverside streets, once filled with teeming crowds from the provinces, were sparsely populated. If not for the workers setting up fireworks tubes on a repurposed river barge, there would be no indication a major holiday was taking place.
Prime Minister Hun Sen pulled the plug on the festival’s famous boat races just weeks ago, claiming dangerously low river levels.
Pundits at the time claimed the premier was trying to prevent an influx of opposition supporters into the capital as the political climate deteriorated.
While few attendees yesterday drew a bold line under the political allegations, many were dubious as to the rationale of the cancellation, while some feared the tradition was in danger of fading away entirely.
“To me, a Water Festival that has no boat racing is completely meaningless,” 32-year-old Chem Samnang, from Chroy Changvar district, said while eating along the riverside with his friends yesterday.
Samnang, who rowed in last year’s race in Phnom Penh, said he thought the government’s public explanation of too-shallow water for the cancellation was “unreasonable”.
“The tourist boats, oil ships and sand dredgers are travelling, and those boats and ships are far heavier than the racing boats,” Samnang said.
Indeed, as it has since the cancellation was announced, river traffic proceeded as normal, from massive barges to tiny fishing boats, though it would be halted briefly for the evening’s fireworks display.
Sao Sam Un, a 56-year-old, who said he rowed for Botum Sakor pagoda – which he claimed finished second in last year’s race – was wistful about the suspended race.
Pointing to the central role the river plays in Cambodian life, Sam Un said he worried the tradition might simply fade from the minds of Cambodia’s youth if it continues to be marked irregularly.
“Water is the source of life, so we should celebrate the festival every year, or else the young generation will not know the culture and tradition of the festival and they might get confused or think that our ancestors copied this festival from another nation,” Sam Un said.
Losing that tradition was on the minds of more than one visitor the Post spoke to.
“I am afraid that the Water Festival is going to be eliminated because of the reasoning that the water is too shallow,” said Ma Chhean, 25, from Svay Rieng province.
But not everyone was upset. Virak, a 24-year-old monk from Preah Sihanouk province, echoed the government’s position, saying it was more important to use festival funds to help farmers stricken by drought and to fund other infrastructure projects.
“The cancellation for one or two years does not seriously affect beliefs and tradition, but what is important is that the farmers are facing a water shortage, so it is necessary to solve the significant problem, food, first,” he said.
Ministry of Water Resources spokesman Chan Yutha told the Post on November 12 that cash earmarked for the festival had been used to buy 60,000 litres of fuel to run pumping stations to bolster drought stricken reservoirs.
Yutha said at the time that he did not know what percentage of the Water Festival’s total budget had been reallocated.
As with past cancellations, vendors in the capital are being hit in their pocketbooks, earning a fraction of what they make in a normal festival year.
Chhun Srey, 55, who runs a beverage cart, said that on the first day of last year’s festival, she earned 200,000 riel (about $50), but this year she barely scraped up a normal day’s worth of sales.
“If there’s no boat racing, there will be no people. Today, from the morning to 4pm, I sold six bottles of mineral water and 20 cans of Coca-Cola,” she said.
Despite the lack of boat racing, other festivities arranged by Phnom Penh City Hall, including concerts, art exhibits and nightly fireworks shows, will continue.
Last night’s fireworks display was held at 7pm. Tonight’s will be conducted twice – at 7pm and 12am – while fireworks will be held on the festival’s final night at 7pm.
Additional reporting by Igor Kossov