Hun Sen Park overflowed with the detritus of celebration on Friday morning, November
18, after the final day of the annual Water Festival. Tents and hawker stalls stood
empty, waiting to be dismantled and stored away. A multicolored, knee-high pile of
deflated balloons along the street signaled the end of the three-day party, and the
return to workaday life in Phnom Penh.
A women's team races on the Tonle Sap. Among more than 20,000 competitors in 399 boats were 633 women.
The Water Festival's planning committee reported that an estimated 1.5 million people
converged on the capital for the first day of the celebration on November 15. That
number surged to two million on November 16 and 17, according to the committee.
The Ministry of Finance reported that the government spent $225,000 on the festival,
down $25,000 from last year.
Minister of Tourism Lay Prahas estimated a smaller number - one million on the second
day of the festival - but said more people attended this year's festival than last
"We also had more foreign visitors from other countries," he said. "People
came here and seemed to be very happy."
Prahas said the ministry's efforts to attract more regional interest in Cambodia's
Water Festival had paid off. Though Thailand won the festival's first Greater Mekong
Subregion Boat Race-which included nearly two dozen teams from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam,
Thailand and Myanmar-Prahas said the event encouraged solidarity between the neighboring
He said that next year the ministry would work to expand international participation
in the races.
"I plan to ask the Cambodian government to invite participation from the other
ASEAN nations, to include countries like Korea and Japan in the festival," Prahas
But the government's efforts to burnish Cambodia's image for outsiders left at least
one group of citizens out in the cold.
Water Festival organizers banned HIV/AIDS awareness spots on radio and television
from being aired during the boat races, citing concerns about tourists' perception
of the problem in Cambodia.
And local media reported that festival organizers extended the ban on Wednesday to
the name of a boat manned by HIV-positive rowers. The boat, named Eisei Senchey Fighting
AIDS, was intended to reduce the stigma surrounding people with HIV. Though the boat
was allowed to race, festival organizers dropped "Fighting AIDS" from its
official name out of concern that it would reflect poorly on Cambodia's image as
a tourist destination.
For Phnom Penh residents who remained in town for the celebration, the Water Festival
meant playing host to sometimes dozens of family members from the provinces. Toun
Srey Pov, 28, welcomed nine members of her family from Kampong Cham into her small
home. Srey Pov, who normally operates a stall near the Russian Market, put her business
acumen to use selling foodstuffs from two orange coolers near the National Assembly.
It was her first time as a vendor during the Water Festival, and she said she was
pleased with the 109,000 riel she netted over the three days.
On Friday morning, workers near the race's finish line disassembled neon-colored
floats representing government ministries. Across Sisowath Quay, nearly 100 men milled
about outside the Permanent Office of the Committee of National and International
Ceremony, home of the festival's organizing committee.
Pi Than, 30, was there to pick up his prize from the races. Than's boat, from Kampong
Thom province, took second prize. He said he was unsure whether he would receive
rice, noodles or cash from the government in exchange for his efforts.
"First-place winners get more, we will get less," he said.