siem reap town – Unlike the wild parties that roared around the globe for the millennium, Cambodians and expatriates by the tens of thousands rang in a subdued new year here with a solemn cultural celebration at the famed temples of Angkor.
The carefully orchestrated evening of dancing and singing by roughly 750 performers and a Buddhist ceremony went off without the problems predicted by critics. However, a lack of portable toilets, nearly inoperable mobile phone service throughout town and a timing mishap in the last minutes of 1999 didn’t go unnoticed.According to the schedule, National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh was to deliver a speech at 11:45 pm on New Year’s Eve, just after a performance by the prestigious royal dance company.
But his speech started late, pushing a blessing by dozens of monks beyond midnight. Meanwhile, fireworks originating from the main temple behind the stage went off right on schedule, causing a bit of confusion over when to celebrate.
A crowd gathered on stage eventually popped champagne and shouted “Happy New Year” nearly 10 minutes after midnight, while revelers on the temple steps watched on large screens.
In all, Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth said the evening could not have gone much more smoothly. “All along, I’ve said that if you’re going to do it, you have to do it big, or not do it at all. No matter what, it was a spectacular show,” he said at a government party after the fireworks.
Outside the cordoned VIP areas, roughly 30,000 Cambodians and tourists alike, according to event organizers, reveled into the night—many settling down to sleep among the trees surrounding the main temple.
Only 40 portable toilets were set up inside the temple complex, leaving most to fend for themselves in the woods.
“Everyone was happy. What more can you ask for?” maintained Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalyvuth, who said nearly 200 workers have been dispatched to clean up the temple grounds.
Officials blamed at least a few communication breakdowns on what appeared to be a service outage by MobiTel mobile phones throughout Siem Reap town.
Although MobiTel, one of the event’s sponsors, tripled its capacity for the event, the company was not able to accommodate what executive director Kith Meng said were 10,000 subscribers attending the festival.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and wife Bun Rany joined in the celebrations; King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath were not present.
One part of the evening seemed to silence all complaints: the spectacular re-enactment of a Hindu epic, “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” by the royal dance troupe. Detailed in one of the prominent bas-reliefs on the East Gallery of Angkor Wat, the drama depitcts gods battling demons to churn an ocean of milk in search of lost treasures.
That the festival took place at all was cause enough for celebration,one resident said. “If we keep celebrating the culture like this, the living in Siem Reap is only going to get better and better, and we’ll be able to forget the times that were not so good,” said a temple. preservationist.
With the lighted temple serving as a backdrop, the dancers’ bodies at one point became one column of movement as they transformed into a snake that writhed and churned the milk. Eventually Vishnu, in the form of an enormous tortoise, appeared to serve as a pivoting point to turn and rotate the ocean. Once the gods eventually overcame the demons and “life overcame the death,” according to the announcer, the gilded apsara dancers appeared for a victory dance.