Ros Vannara stood dejectedly yesterday on the embankment along the Tonle Sap river, watching his longboat being towed ashore by a police vessel.
The boat racer, from Preak Samrong pagoda in Kandal province’s Takhmao town, said his team’s boat had been overturned by waves during a practice run yesterday morning.
“Everyone [on the team] needs to stay united and keep upbeat. This is the only way we can hope to win,” he said, adding that none of his teammates were injured in the mishap.
The Kingdom’s Water Festival – observed in fits and starts over the past five years – got off to a somewhat muted beginning yesterday, with far fewer attendees than in past instalments of the three-day national holiday, though city officials maintained that about half a million people enjoyed the festivities across Phnom Penh.
While regular celebrations, including the popular boat races on the Tonle Sap and concert and entertainment venues near the riverside, were organised as usual, revellers and food vendors alike said attendance was low.
Dozens of vendors, selling everything from water to apparel, lined the streets near the Royal Palace, Wat Botum Park and the Independence Monument.
Van Phara, a cooked duck egg vendor from Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district, walked along the embankment trying to sell her wares, but said she had made only a few sales.
She attributed the drop in attendance to the frequent cancelling of the festivities over the past five years.
“This year there are not many people and I could not sell much,” she said. “There are so many vendors but so few visitors.”
Echoing her sentiment, Phnom Penh-based farmer and former boat racer Keo Somorn said it was sad to see the boat race – a cherished Cambodian tradition – attracting smaller crowds.
“This is our tradition – we used to own it and celebrate it. And when it is not celebrated, it is really sad”, he said, adding that he hopes attendance will pick up over the next two days.
The festival has had a rocky history over the half decade. The last full-throated edition, in 2010, saw nearly a million visitors packed into the city. On the event’s last day, thick crowds resulted in a bottleneck on a bridge leading to Koh Pich. The resulting panic saw 353 people killed in a crush as the crowd surged forward.
In 2011 and 2013, the government cancelled the festival, citing mass flooding, whereas the death of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk weeks before the festival was given as the reason for the cancellation of the 2012 edition.
Despite that three-year gap, attendance numbers for the festival were low in 2014. Last year’s festival was cancelled at the last minute, despite assurances from Prime Minister Hun Sen that the celebrations would go on. While the government blamed low water levels due to an ongoing drought, many concluded fear of an influx of visitors at a time when political tensions were high was the real cause.
Mean Chanyada, City Hall spokesman, yesterday said the local government estimated half a million were in attendance, adding that petty crimes such as bag snatching and phone thefts were very low due to the heavy police presence.
“We think that on the second day and third day there will be an increase in attendance – a slight increase,” he said. National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith confirmed that only three theft cases had been registered yesterday and suspects had been arrested in two of them.
A police official meanwhile confirmed that the bodies of two rowers – Chhoen Chorn, 36, and Sok Chan Chesda, 18 – who went missing after their vessel collided with a cruise ship on the Tonle Sap river on Friday, had been found after a call was put out via radio asking for residents to look for them.
“The families of the two rowers have already identified the bodies and taken them [yesterday] afternoon,” said Liv Theng, police chief for Prek Thmey commune.
Cruiseco, the Australian operator of the cruise ship Adventurer, declined to comment yesterday, saying the matter was being reviewed by local authorities.