Prime Festival Viewing Spots Go to Foreigners

Life is good in the foreigner tent.

As the second day of Phnom Penh’s Water Festival unfolded on Monday afternoon, this was the consensus inside the shaded awnings of a Ministry of Tourism tent set up exclusively to welcome foreign festival-goers.

Festival-goers sit in the front row of a ‘foreign visitor’ tent with a prime view of the boat races on Monday. (Alex Consiglio)
Festival-goers sit in the front row of a ‘foreign visitor’ tent with a prime view of the boat races on Monday. (Alex Consiglio)

“I thought it was a VIP tent,” said 26-year-old Stijn Van Der Zwaluw as he took a sip of a complementary Cambodia beer. The Dutch backpacker said he found it “a little discriminatory” that most Cambodians were stuck in the sun while he got a prime perch.

“But, honestly, I’m happy because it’s so hot,” he said.

If festival seating arrangements say anything about social status, then foreigners fare well in Cambodia. Prime seats near the finish line go to King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top officials, while lower officials occupy the tent next door.

Meanwhile, foreigners who stray into the mobs and midday heat of the riverside quickly find themselves ushered into the plush white seats of the northernmost tent. Throngs of Cambodians crane for a view in the unshaded banks beyond.

Graham Moss was in the closing stages of his guided tour of Vietnam and Cambodia when his guide told him about the boat races.

“I don’t understand it at all, but they seem enthusiastic,” the 66-year-old British retiree said from his seat under the ministry’s awning. He was appreciative, too, of the tent, though also aware of the distance it created between visitors and locals.

“We were surprised to learn that there was such a thing,” he said.

Tourism Minister Thong Khon said on Sunday that he expected 2,000 foreigners to stop by the viewing stage, which offers headsets with commentary translated into French and English and free beverages.

Just beyond the tent’s barricades on Monday, red-dressed rice farmer Chea Sothea was straining in the heat with no chance for any such amenities.

“We are the small people; we can’t go there,” the 36-year-old pregnant mother of four said, standing behind a dense line of mostly male onlookers packed against the riverbank. “It’s very hard for me. I’m a pregnant woman but how can I see anything?”

Nearby, 22-year-old Kong Nari said the jury was still out on whether her first festival was a success.

“It’s hard to say, because I can’t see well,” the 1.5-meter tall maid said, with sweat beading on her face.

The tents are “very unfair for us,” she said. “There’s shade over there, but over here it’s very hard to see.”

Yin Sypheng, a deputy director-general at the Tourism Ministry, said the tent was necessary to ease travelers into a festival that they might not otherwise understand.

“It makes it easier for the foreign visitors to have a better look,” he said. “Tourists [do] not know about the Water Festival,” whereas Cambodians were already sold on its appeal.

While Ms. Nari and Ms. Sothea were barred from entering the tent, the Cambodian wife of Irishman Barry Stone, an expatriate living in Kep, had no such problems.

“It’s brilliant,” he said of the setup. “I used to live in Thailand and you’d never get it there.”

Rice farmer Seang Hai, 55, watched from a plot of grass several meters back from the riverbank, where much of the festival crowd took in the races.

“I can’t watch well. I can’t get close—there are a lot of men,” the Tbong Khmum province native said.

Ms. Hai was not discouraged, however.

“Even though I can’t see the boat racing well, I can see the people smiling, so I’m happy with them,” she said.

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