Massive crowds, road accidents and pollution in Phnom Penh drove many cityfolk to favour getaways in Sihanoukville, Siem Reap
Throngs of partygoers in Phnom Penh on the riverside. Cambodians are increasingly turning to Sihanoukville and Siem Reap to celebrate the Water Festival where crowds are thinner.
TRAVEL and tourism industry officials say a growing number of Phnom Penh residents this year have shunned the capital's Water Festival, choosing instead less frenetic environments offered by Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
Government authorities estimated that as many as four million visitors would visit the capital to mark this year's Water Festival, packing the banks of the Tonle Sap to view the dragon boat races and choking traffic at intersections throughout the city.
However, hotels in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, which also host Water Festival celebrations, reported record bookings.
Eng Panharith, owner of My Home guesthouse in Siem Reap's Phsar Krom commune, said he has turned away customers and referred them to friends' guesthouses because he could not accommodate the nearly 100 people trying to book rooms with him.
"The number of customers here has doubled or tripled the normal number, which is about 40 percent or 50 percent occupancy," he said.
"Most of them have arrived from Phnom Penh. I've already turned away 28 people."
Hut Sokim, 25, a booking agent at a Phnom Penh-based travel company, spent this year's festival in Sihanoukville with friends to escape the holiday bustle.
"We didn't want to stay in Phnom Penh because it gets so crowded with traffic everywhere," she said.
"We never stay at home during the Water Festival because the pollution [in Phnom Penh] gets so bad."
So Vong, 48, teaches primary school in Phnom Penh's Russey Keo district.
He and his family returned to their home province of Battambang to spend the three-day holiday in a more relaxed environment.
"Phnom Penh gets so congested with all the crowds, and there are so many traffic accidents," he said.
"I can watch the festival on television at my home if I want, or my family and I can visit local temples, hike in the forest and enjoy the beautiful landscape of our province."
Phnom Penh has attracted record crowds, but the increase in arrivals in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville outpaced the capital, said tourism sources.
Lorn Thin, supervisor of the Jasmine Hotel in Sihanoukville, said he has also seen a spike in business during the festival.
Jasmine's 55 rooms have been booked solid through the festival, while normal capacity generally runs between 18 and 20 rooms.
"While the number of foreign tourists has decreased recently ... local tourists have increased during the Water Festival," he said.
"Most of my customers have come from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Ratanakkiri and other provinces," he added.
Reaksmey Sreynaph, a ticket vendor with the Paramount Tour Co, said passenger loads on buses from the capital to Siem Reap have risen nearly 50 percent, with buses running at full capacity compared with other times of the year.
"We have four departures from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap each day, and every bus has been full during the festival," she said.
Meas Rotana, who sells tickets for the Sorya Transport Co in Phnom Penh, said she has also seen increasing numbers of passengers buying tickets for Sihanoukville.
"I think more people in Phnom Penh are looking to spend the holiday in an environment with fresh air, where they can relax with family or friends," she said.
No government figures were available on the exact number of arrivals in Siem Reap or Sihanoukville.
Tourism Ministry authorities were unavailable for comment.