‘With love we can enjoy it together’

Nget Pheak, third from left, smiles beside his boat.
Nget Pheak, third from left, smiles beside his boat. Eli Meixler

‘With love we can enjoy it together’

For some of the Kingdom’s poorest families, coming to the capital for the celebrations is a price worth paying

As the sun set on the Tonle Sap on Wednesday, cheerful rowers in matching T-shirts came to shore as they concluded the Water Festival’s first day in four years. They danced and laughed as drum music played. The three-day event, however, came at a high cost for some of the rowers.

“Even though we are a poor family and have spent much money to come, I brought my wife and my son with me because they are my strongest supporters, and with love we can enjoy it together,” said Nget Pheak, a 31-year-old fisherman from Kandal.

Pheak’s family has little – at the height of rainy season, he makes between $7.50 and $10 per day but during the dry season his income can fall to zero. He and his wife, Lack Sokha, 21 had to sell their fishing boat to support their baby, who suffers chronic intestinal problems.

But the financial burden of coming to the Water Festival was well worth it, said Sokha. “We cannot forget our national festival so my husband decided to join even though we have less money,” she said tearfully, holding her son in her arms. “And we wanted to have time with each other in Phnom Penh.”

Pheak, who is experiencing his first Water Festival as a married man, said it was a ritual he had presumed he would give up once he started a family. “I didn’t want to join anymore because I thought I was married and I didn’t want to leave my family alone in my hometown, but when the ceremony came, I could not stop myself from joining,” he said.

To cut expenses, Pheak and Sokha arrived in Phnom Penh by ferry instead of bus and slept at the port instead of paying for a guesthouse. It wasn’t a big sacrifice, Pheak said. “I was happy and excited to join in the Water Festival because it is a national royal ceremony that we can’t forget.”

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