This year’s Water Festival is set to be slightly scaled back, says Siem Reap’s provincial deputy governor, Kim Chhaihieng.
Last year, Siem Reap’s celebrations drew more than 80,000 visitors from across Cambodia, including those unable to attend the Phnom Penh events, which Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled, citing drought. This year, Siem Reap will hold a two-day festival – on November 13 and 14 – to allow people in other provinces to spend the third day in the capital.
“This year, I think the number of visitors may be much less,” Chhaiheng says. “Even so, we still have people from the provinces around us.”
The Siem Reap festivities – which were last cancelled in 2013 due to flooding – will not be affected by water levels, he adds.
The provincial authority is already hanging up decorative lights around town in anticipation of the arrivals. Siem Reap hosts 30 boats that carry racers from Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces, as well as a fireworks show. The event will require the mobilisation of about 500 provincial and military police.
“The process of the celebration is the same no matter where we celebrate it,” Chhaihieng says.
Siem Reap’s festivities will include three additional ceremonies: illuminated boats (loy pratip), the moon salutation (sampeas preah khe), and a traditional meal of freshly harvested rice served with banana or coconut juice (ork ambok).
At about 7pm on both nights – after the races – the illuminated boats will float down the river, equipped with thousands of flashy neon lights arranged in different colours and patterns – many representing state institutions.
Chhaihieng recalls the festival’s rich history: it is celebrated each year to honour the victory of the Angkorian navy over Champa during the reign of Jayavarman VII. But it also represents something simpler, he explains.
“The festival also shows the gratitude toward the water for its fish, and for [fertile] fields,” he says. “And for giving happiness to our people in their livelihood.”
It’s certainly true for Hul Bopha, the mother of three girls. She says Water Festival is not only an important family tradition, its a serious economic boon to Siem Reap.
“My children told me they can see these views only once a year, so they’re always excited,” she says. “It really helps to refresh their mood.”
“It is also a good occasion for the sellers: they can earn a lot more money selling things during the festival,” Bopha adds.