Ancient Festival of Peace Meets New Challenges in Struggling Society

At the beginning of the world, the devas and the asuras fought bitterly between themselves for amrita, a potion that would bring them everlasting life. After 1,000 years of fighting they asked the god Vishnu for help. He ordered them to work together, rather than fight to obtain the amrita. They united and started churning the ocean of milk, spinning their boats in the river. They churned for 1,000 years before they gained the amrita. Then the devas and the asuras fought again, to have control of the magic elixir. Again, Vishnu intervened. Indra was installed as king of the gods and peace reigned in the kingdom.

The Water Festival, a week long celebration centered around three days of interprovincial boat races beginning tomorrow, has its roots in this legend. In Angkorian times, King Jayavarman II sent his fleet of royal Navy to the place where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers converge, just south of modern Phnom Penh. This show of military might churned the waters, like a whirlpool, directing the Tonle Sap’s nutrient rich waters south, harkening the beginning of planting season.

The Tonle Sap is one of the only rivers on earth that completely reverses its flow, filling the great Tonle Sap lake half of the year and enriching the farmlands in its flood plane as it drains into the sea, the other half.

The Water Festival, Bon Om Touk, coincides with the full moon of the Buddhist month Kadeuk. The moon’s gravitational pull, which controls tides, reverses the flow of the river. The powerful full moon of Kadeuk is believed to be a good omen, bringing a strong harvest.

“The full moon is a symbol of peace and prosperity for the country. My grandfather believed in it, I believe in it and my children will believe in it.” says Soriya Eng.

While sitting near Lucky Supermarket last week at a barbecued chicken stand that she helps her sister run, the smoke from the chicken pits billowed into the faces of beggars crowded around the small shop. The Municipal Police had just extorted 2,000 riel from Soriya Eng’s sister, the fourth time of the day. As she spoke, a truck full of police raced along Sihanouk Boulevard. Peace and Prosperity seemed a distant dream.

As she sat near Lucky Supermarket last week at a barbecued chicken stand she helps her sister run, the smoke from the chicken pits billowed into the faces of beggars crowded around the small shop. Soriya Eng said the Municipal Police had just extorted 2,000 riel from her sister—it was the fourth time that day. As she spoke, a truck full of police raced along Sihanouk Boulevard. Peace and prosperity seemed a distant dream.

The Water Festival was outlawed during the regime of Democratic Kampuchea and reinstated by King Norodom Sihanouk in the early 1990s. It is an opportunity for people from the provinces to come to Phnom Penh once a year and celebrate, says Chea Kean, director of the Permanent Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals.

“I think the living conditions of the people and the political situation will not affect the Water Festival,” Chea Kean says.

Still, the political events of the post-election period have infringed on the usually joyous festival. In response to the recent unrest, Deputy Director of the National Police King Samnang said security at the festival would be stronger than in past years, with more police patrolling around the clock. “We are very worried about terrorism, like a grenade attack or explosives,” he said. Police will check for weapons, explosives and knives.

In addition, Cambodia suffered an unusually dry rainy season, which left many farmers stuggling to grow good rice crops to feed their families. Reports of hunger and starvation in Kompong Thom are beginning to surface. The UN Food Program said last week that it is currently feeding 10 percent of the Cam­bodian population, but does not foresee a famine in the country. How­ever, some families in Kom­pong Thom are reported to have sold their children into labor, in exchange for as little as 20 kg of rice. Truck­loads of peasants from the provinces have been gathering outside the Royal Palace for the past two weeks. The farmers and their families are not arriving early for the festival; instead they are hoping to receive a few dollars or a bag of rice from King Norodom Sihanouk.

These events cast an un­happy aura over the Water Festival, threatening to outshine even the auspicious glow of the Kadeuk moon. Many in Phnom Penh say they are too frightened or too poor to go to the Water Festival this year. Li Vaneun, a moto taxi driver working on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, says he will not be able to attend the festival, because he will have to work.

“Particularly the vendors, they can go, but motodops are not able to attend because they move around when they work,” says Li Van­eun, who moved to Phnom Penh from Kom­pong Thom a year and a half ago.

He remembers the Water Festival days when he was young, “Usually my sister or uncle would take me to see the show. It was an exciting feeling to be part of the race and celebration.” This year though, he foresees being part only of the race for customers. He is worried that many of the people visiting from the provinces will pile the whole family into cyclos, and he and other moto taxi drivers will be without fares.

While he may not be able to watch the races, Li Vaneun will be cheering while he works, for Kom­pong Thom, his home pro­vince where sucessive bad crops have forced the star­ving people to search the forest for berries and wild cassava. “I usually support Kompong Thom, not only because I lived there, but because they win, every year.”

Yos Kimson paces on the empty maidan, at Hun Sen Park, near Sothearos Boulevard. Holding his battered camera awkwardly in his hands and squinting into the sun, the 21-year-old photographer says he usually earns about 7,000 riel each day, but during the Water Festival last year made as much as 30,000 riel in a day. “But this year I expect that I will earn only half of what I did last year. Most people, especially workers, have no jobs to make money. How can they have money to spend on the festival days?” he says. “Farmers did not have a good harvest this year so most of them can not come to the city to join the festival. The political situation is not stable, so most of the people are very afraid to turn out for fun.”

Not far away, Srey Poa, 16, squats on the moist ground near her sugar cane grinder, shucking corn, surrounded by flies. Khmer radio plays plaintive songs as the carousel at the play land across the street swings idly. She is from Svay Rieng province, but no one from home will be visiting this year. Srey Poa hopes to earn 30,000 riel each day at the festival. Most days she earns 7,000 from her juice cart parked along Sothearos Boulevard.

Taking a break in the mid-day sun at what was referred to in September as “Democracy Square,” Mey Samneang and Khat Chantha say they came from Takeo province to look for work. They found it building stalls for the Water Festival along the park at Wat Botom. The tile-roofed stalls will be used for commercial promotions during the festival. But Mey Samneang and Khat Chantha and the other construction workers with them, who are paid 5,000 riel a day, will not be able to stay for the Festival. They can’t afford to. “I want to stay here and join the festival, but I have to work at the field to support my family. The national festival is very important, but I have to go home.” Khat Chantha echoes his co-worker, “I think that I have to go back to the province to meet my family during the water festival. I am very sorry that I could not stay in the city and join the festival because I could not afford the rent.”

“Maybe this year not so many people go to Water Festival,” says a moto taxi driver who calls himself Danny, “many people they are afraid.” He believes that the threat of political violence may keep many away from the three days of racing and festivities, especially those who supported the opposition demonstrations.

Meun Makara, however, is optimistic about the festival. “People start enjoying life. This is what Cambodian culture is all about, enjoying life,” the 18 year-old says. She is going to the races. She will head to the water front early tomorrow morning, to celebrate with her family. “You go for picnic with all your family. Sitting around, you just watch people. The best part is that family is together,” she says, smiling broadly. Meun Makara joins the celebration every year, always cheering for Kompong Thom, “Because they always win!”

At the chicken stand on Sihanouk Blvd, Soriya Eng holds her son in her lap. He has just had a bath, his damp hair brushed sideways over his forehead. The three year-old cuddles against his mother, while the child of a beggar pushes against the restaurant’s table quietly repeating the word “nham” over and over. Soriya Eng says that she has heard of many people who will not go to the festival, “Because of the political situation, people are not sure of their safety.”

However, Soriya Eng will go with her son and husband. They will stand on Sisowath Quay and cheer for the boats. “It doesn’t really matter who wins, because this festival is for all Cambodians to celebrate and enjoy life,“ she says.

While she can not afford to go to the races or to stop work for a whole day, Kong Moun, who works with Soriya Eng selling chicken, will still celebrate Bon Om Touk. “I do celebrate. I go to the Wats. We do the ceremony after the races are over. In the afternoon, around 4 pm, we go to the Wats.” Kung Moun and her family will bring coconuts, bananas and pounded rice to the monks. Soriya Eng explains further, “You burn incense. Then you bring gifts to the monks, waiting for the moon to come out so that things will be in place.” Monks will preach in the gathering twilight, waiting for the bright Kandeuk moon to shine down peace and to bring prosperity in rich harvests and bountiful fishing. The moon is supposed to set things right as Vishnu and King Jayavarman II’s rule brought peace to the ancient world. Will the churning of the waters and the Kadeuk moon bring peace and prosperity this year? “It is up to the leaders of Cambodia to lead the people to peace.” Soriya Eng says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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