Rows of vendors selling colorful hand-woven baskets, purses, ornaments and jewelry are already lining Sothearos Boulevard near Wat Ounalom in preparation for the Water Festival.
But the sellers, most of who traveled from villages in Ponhea Leu district, Kandal province, say making the journey is a risky endeavor—a chance for big gains, or big losses.
Man Raskmey, 45, sells baskets near the pagoda at Udong throughout the year but she took a gamble on this year’s Water Festival, spending $75 to $100 on finely woven baskets to supplement the ones she crafted herself.
If there are a lot of people visiting Phnom Penh, Man Raskmey said it is possible to make a profit.
“But some years I lose that much as well,” she said.
Standing behind a pile of colorful baskets and hampers, Ly Phally said that she and seven other family members who made the trip to Phnom Penh see the Water Festival as a crucial revenue source.
She said her family can earn $1 or $2 per day near Udong, but can haul in $25 per day at the festival’s peak.
Still, there are hazards to endure.
The vendors sleep on the streets outside the pagoda, taking turns staying awake to keep watch, Man Raskmey said.
And many sellers reported that, though they had no permit, officials in police and civilian uniforms stopped by regularly to demand as much as $2.50 each day.
Sary, 45, who weaves colorful insects, fish and birds from palm fronds, said that government officials asked her for money daily and ordered her family to move if they did not pay.
Sok Sambath, Daun Penh district governor, said the vendors had no permits but were welcomed anyway, as they were not a security threat and helped showcase Khmer culture.
“Actually, we never [officially] allow those villagers to sell, but in accordance with sentimental ways, I could not dismiss them,” he said.
Pen In, Phsar Kandal II commune chief, said she too had not issued permits to the vendors and neither had she ordered fees collected from them.
Pen In said she would investigate the vendors’ claims and suspected that imposters were involved.
“Those villagers are poor,” she said. “I could not allow my officials to extort money from them.”