A Water Festival tradition, possibly as old as boat racing itself, has waned a bit this year, as a government campaign warns revelers against fleeting acquaintances and the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
Boat racers, known to provide an influx in business for Phnom Penh’s brothels in previous years, say they’ll either forgo visits to bordellos altogether—or at least use protection.
“I will not go to the brothel,” said Huch Chea, a 42-year-old boat racer from Kandal province. “I have a wife and I must protect her and my family,” he said.
Khut Som Ol, 23, also from Kandal province, said Thursday he hadn’t yet visited the city’s red-light establishments, but intended to do so soon.
“I will go to the brothel, but now I need to relax first,” Khut Som Ol said. “I will use two condoms at a time to protect myself.”
That’s the kind of talk that government officials and NGO workers say they hope to hear more of as they canvass the city to promote safe sex during the three-day festival.
A group of 25 NGOs have invested $70,000 to make sure that their message gets delivered, said Seng Sopheap, coordinator for the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, an NGO working with the government on their safe sex campaign.
As spectators gather for three days of boat racing that began on the Tonle Sap Thursday, National AIDS Authority workers and volunteers from local NGOs were hitting the streets, handing out posters, leaflets and T-shirts, hoping to help people avoid the dangers of the deadly virus.
Workers are also handing out hundreds of thousands of condoms to the general public, Seng Sopheap said, though their focus remains on visiting boat racing teams. Many of the racers from rural provinces are fascinated by the city lifestyle and are tempted to explore the brothels, he said.
“Being in the city is a big excitement for many, especially when Phnom Penh is developing with high-rise buildings and shopping centers,” he said. “Some of the boat racers are already infected with HIV.”
On Thursday afternoon, however, several Phnom Penh brothels appeared less-than-busy.
At one brothel on Street 154, nine women milled about, some sitting idly on the couch, as they waited for customers. They told reporters they had not seen any boat racers at their establishment, and refused to comment further. Tia Phalla, secretary-general of the National AIDS Authority, expected that the number of boat racers visiting brothels would be less this year, helped by HIV/AIDS education programs promoted throughout the country in recent years.
“Ninety-five percent of boat racers will wear not only one condom, but perhaps two or three,” he said.
But, Seng Sopheap of the HIV AIDS Coordinating Committee, was apprehensive that despite the efforts of health workers, many boat racers will have contracted the disease by the time they return home.
“Many men don’t know how to use condoms properly,” he said. “Many racers do not believe HIV exists, especially when they see beautiful women winking at men.”
Sok Kong, 44, a boat racer from Kompong Cham province said business at the brothels won’t likely pick up until later on into the festival.
“By ritual, men should not sleep or have sex [with a woman] because they might lose the race. After the race, it’s OK,” he said.
He added: “I don’t want to go to the brothel, but if they keep pulling my hand, I can’t resist.”