Today, Cambodia welcomes back its Water Festival.
Four years removed from the tragedy of Koh Pich, and following the cancellation of three festivals since, the colour and energy of a much-loved national event returns to the streets and riverbanks of Phnom Penh.
And so do the crowds.
“We’re predicting about two million people will come,” said Chhin Ketana, secretary-general of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals.
The event marks the end of the rainy season, when the flow of the Tonle Sap river changes direction near where it meets the Mekong.
The festival’s return will bring much joy but, for some, it will evoke the painful memories of the Koh Pich bridge stampede, which killed 353 people in 2010.
With that tragedy still fresh, concerns have been raised about safety over the next three days, especially since a deadly accident during a public fireworks display killed 22-year-old student Na Kry Daro across the river from the Royal Palace last Wednesday.
But National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said yesterday that authorities – often criticised as lacking the training and skills required to handle emergency situations – have received regular emergency training since 2010.
“[Officers] have been undergoing emergency training four or five times a year,” he explained. “This year, our presence will be big.”
Some 10,000 officers, authorities have said, will together provide 24-hour patrols.
Signs on the street yesterday suggested that a four-year break had done little to wane people’s enthusiasm for the festival.
Showboats sat on the Tonle Sap opposite the Royal Palace as construction crews rushed to erect riverbank pavilions ahead of today’s boat races. Preliminary competition continued on the water, an inviting spectacle for the early crowds lining the Sisowath Quay riverfront.
“We like looking at the boats and the races, but we also like coming here for the food,” said Khov Lim Heang, 18, a high school student. “After the stampede four years ago, safety is a big concern to us … but we’ll come to the festival every night and probably one of the days.”
Across the water in Chroy Changvar district, crowds were building just as fast. Teams of boatmen rested under tarps as workers set up a stage and children milled about near sideshows.
The site where shrapnel from a military-run fireworks mishap killed Kry Daro, near the Sokha Hotel, was teeming with people. It will stay that way over coming days.
All fireworks, officials said, will be launched from boats.
“We have thought about people’s safety,” said Ketana, from the festivals committee. “The fireworks will be launched from a ferry in the middle of the river. We will have fireworks each day. [Today], we will have a 20-minute display when display boats are on the river.”
Another main fireworks display will take place at midnight tomorrow, Ketana said.
“The second day is very important. Midnight is the time for people to eat ambok [Cambodian flattened rice] with banana and coconut. The moon will be bright and people will pray to it.”
A display of boats representing a variety of government ministries will accompany the fireworks tonight, he added.
With preliminary boat races over, the real competition will begin this morning. Races will see more than 240 boats battle it out for supremacy. One team is banking on past form giving it an advantage.
“We’ve been champions four times before,” said Lao Eng, chief of a team from Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district. “We hope to win again. We need to take our success back to our village to share with our people.”
His team of about 160 people have been funded by their local pagoda, with the help of unnamed “excellencies”, he added.
Included in their entourage yesterday were three chefs tasked with providing the team three meals a day.
“We’re spending $500 a day,” Eng said.
For the first time, his team was entering two boats.
“Our first boat is named Saray Put Sencheay. The name dates back to a boat we used during [Norodom] Sihanouk’s rule [in the 1960s]. But it was destroyed during the time of Pol Pot. We built a new boat but kept the name going.”
The team also built a second boat after its victory in 2010.
“We’ve been waiting all this time to show it off,” Eng said.
Away from the water, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said, more than 700 vendors have been granted permission to set up stalls, most of them at Koh Pich. Others were being set up yesterday in front of Wat Botum and further south along Sothearos Boulevard.
Outh Oun, 35, from Kampong Cham, was already enjoying a steady flow of business to her balloon darts stand on the riverfront in Chroy Changvar.
She was looking forward to the challenge of trying to make a profit from this year’s festival, but had some concerns.
“I’m worried about gangsters. They come to play, and they cause trouble when they lose,” she said. But she is also worried about the police.
“One year, I had already paid for my site, but other police came and confiscated my stuff. I paid them $200 in the end.”
Live concerts, City Hall’s Dimanche said, are also planned for the evenings around Koh Pich, Wat Botum, Wat Phnom and Chroy Changvar.
Medical tents were also being set up yesterday. At one, Tho Po, a doctor from Takhmao, said his focus will be rowers who fall victim to the heat.
“Over three days, boat racers use up a lot of energy. Many will be dizzy, they may even faint. We can help them here. If it’s an emergency, we can send them to the hospital,” he said.
But getting them there may be difficult. Tito, from the military police, said authorities were concerned about traffic jams and accidents.
“We urge road users to take care,” he said. “Koh Pich and the Aeon Shopping Mall will be strong areas of focus for us.”
Some streets around Phnom Penh will also be closed (see map above).
Chea Sokheak, general manger of Sorya Shopping Center, the second-largest mall in the capital after Aeon, is also expecting big crowds.
Sorya averages about 10,000 visitors on weekdays and 20,000 on weekends, she said. However, based on attendance levels during the 2010 Water Festival, Sokheak is expecting between 70,000 and 100,000 customers each day.
“There are more places in Phnom Penh for people to visit now. Still, I think our market will attract huge [numbers].
Public security by the waterside is something that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has raised concerns about.
Spokeman Yim Sovann said yesterday that, with so much at stake, authorities will be paying attention.
“I believe that based on what happened in 2010 and last week, the police will pay attention to people’s safety.… If they don’t, they have no capacity to defend the nation.”
Tito, from the military police, said people also needed to look out for themselves and others.
“Do not move into tight spaces that might cause a problem for you,” he said.
After unwittingly finding herself in the midst of a Water Festival, Katja, a tourist from the Netherlands who watched the boats yesterday, said she expected to enjoy what lay ahead.
“I think it will be a great festival, something very special for people in the country. A lot of people are coming already, so it’s a great atmosphere.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY HOR KIMSAY