First-time visitors walking the streets of Phnom Penh yesterday would not know that it was the beginning of one of the most celebrated holidays in the Cambodian calendar.
The opening of the annual three-day Water Festival came and went with a whimper, after the government shelved plans in the wake of the October 15 death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Officials cancelled celebrations in Phnom Penh this year as a gesture of respect in a time of mourning for Sihanouk, who died in Beijing at the age of 89.
His cremation is scheduled to take place in the first week of February in a bespoke crematorium under construction at Meru field, adjacent to the Royal Palace.
This is the third consecutive year the carnival-like Festival, held to coincide with the reversal of the Mekong’s current, has been marred by tragedy.
Last year celebrations were called off because fatal floods swept through the Kingdom, and 353 people partaking in the festivities in 2010 were killed in a stampede on Koh Pich bridge.
Despite the cancellation of the annual fireworks displays and boat races, stores, workplaces and private and public institutions are permitted to take advantage of the Ministry of Labour-appointed three-day national holiday.
Near the river bank in front of the Royal Palace, however, it felt like any other work day. Traffic barriers were still in place on the main road by the palace, and vendor installations, a common feature during the festival, were few and far between.
About 10 of them went up on Koh Pich, also known as Diamond Island.
Long Dimanche, spokesman for the municipality of Phnom Penh, said City Hall had permitted people to visit along the riverbank in front of the royal palace as usual, but had not allowed them to conduct concerts or set up stores.
Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly announced the cancellation this week.
“It is unsuitable for millions of people to visit noisily and happily in front of the Royal Palace where the body of the King Father is being kept during mourning.
“That is why the government decided to [announce] the cancellation of this festival,” Hun Sen said in a speech on Monday.
“In the meantime, people can celebrate the Water Festival at any place, in a pagoda or by travelling to any tourism destination instead,” he said.
Chea Kean, the deputy director of arranging national and international ceremonies, said he was not monitoring which provinces were celebrating the water festival.
In tourist-heavy Siem Reap, at the beginning of the high season, deputy provincial governor Bun Thavarith put the holidays on hold, as did Chhun Siroun, the governor of Kandal province.
“We can’t be happy while all the residents nationwide are mourning for the King Father,” Bun Thavarith said.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]