Nearly half a million people are expected to flood the capital from the countryside this weekend as the Water Festival kicks off.
Competitive boat racing takes place Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but rowers already have arrived in Phnom Penh and are training in front of the Royal Palace on the Tonle Sap.
The festival, which attracts more people to the capital than any other annual event, celebrates the change in direction of the Tonle Sap and the traditional beginning of the fishing season.
In anticipation of the horrendous traffic jams and security problems caused by the expected inundation of people, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said he was strengthening his police force by deploying an additional 5,000 men.
He implemented the plan Thursday, and throughout the day truckloads of police could be seen patrolling the city. Along the waterfront at sunset, dozens of armed, uniformed men stood on watch.
The city also will restrict traffic in many areas. Last year, thousands of revelers were caught in traffic jams after the festival. Starting Sunday, no passenger trucks or buses will be allowed to enter the city. Motorcycle taxi drivers will be banned from nearly 70 city blocks, from Independence Monument to Wat Phnom. All roads east of Norodom Boulevard will be guarded by police.
“This is a new strategy for solving the traffic jam because in previous years we gained experience,” said El Samneang, director of traffic police.
An extra 500 traffic police will be deployed during the festival to direct moving vehicles.
But if the city seemed ready for motorized traffic, it seemed ill-prepared for the hordes of foot travelers who will move up and down the river.
“We are going to set up more than 20 temporary toilets opposite the Wat Botum pagoda,” said Mann Chhoeun, municipal cabinet chief. In addition to the toilets, the city will install about 500 dumpsters, he said.
Others were preparing as well, and on Thursday the riverfront had the look of a town preparing for a typhoon. Businesses were storing food for the next three days, expecting their supply lines to be cut off.
Vendors were gathering along Sisowath Quay, and a wooden platform to seat officials was erected in front of the Royal Palace. Even these pre-event activities seemed to draw in people on the already busy riverfront.
The Water Festival, which will cost 800 million riel ($205,000) from the national budget, officially begins Sunday morning.
At 11 am, the boat races begin. Huge teams of men will row, beat and shout as they compete for the glory of their sponsors. The sponsors then pay rewards to their own boatmen, depending on how well they do.
The next three days will include races, fireworks, moon prayers and illuminated boats with ministry and royal emblems.
More than 22,000 racers from 14 provinces have registered for the races, totaling about 373 boats, said Minh Khin, director of the national festival committee.
On Sunday at 6 pm, the illuminated boats begin sailing. There will be a fireworks show the following day at the same time and the moon prayer at midnight.
The final string-cutting ceremony will be held Tuesday at 5 pm. Once the string between three boats is cut, the festival ends and the fishing season traditionally begins.
(Additional reporting Brian Calvert)