Standing amid Water Festival revelers on Tuesday evening, Heng Lon was outnumbered.
“I can see that there are many, many young people coming to the festival, more than the old people,” the 68-year-old farmer said as his grandchild bobbed in his arms.
“The difference is that old people come here with a plan: to watch the boat racing. But the young people come to see their friends, to go to concerts or to be entertained,” he said.
As the third and final day of the festival drew to a close on Tuesday in Phnom Penh, Mr. Lon and others of his generation braved crowds and heat to watch the latest iteration of a festival they have seen through triumph and tragedy since the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk.
Many things had changed, they said: bigger crowds, tighter security, more entertainment options and better organization.
But all agreed that the festival remained a must-see event.
“It is very important,” Mr. Lon said, as his wife munched on a grasshopper. “The most important festival in Cambodia is the Water Festival.”
Kong Luon, pausing for a noodle break on a mat outside the Royal Palace, said it was her first time attending the festival after years of watching it on television.
“I’m really excited and happy,” the 65-year-old said. “We are Cambodian people—we must honor our ancestors and celebrate.”
“I hope to be back next year,” she added.
Some histories of the festival trace its roots to the 12th century, when Angkorian King Jayavarman VII’s navy defeated that of his Cham rivals. More recently, Prince Sihanouk presided over the festival until he was ousted from power in 1970. Authorities revived the festival in 1990, though it has been held only intermittently since a 2010 stampede on a bridge connecting mainland Phnom Penh to Koh Pich island killed hundreds.
Mr. Lon was not pleased with all of the changes.
“Under the Sihanouk regime, we could get close and park our bike near the Royal Palace,” he remembered. And until relatively recently, the Kandal province native rode his boat into town.
“Since Koh Pich was developed, we have no more place to dock the boat,” he said of the expanding piece of land now home to sprawling strip malls and countless construction projects.
An Theang, 77, marvelled at the changes that the celebration had undergone since his last visit during the 1960s.
“When I look around, it seems so strange because I see many, many stalls,” the rice farmer said. “In the previous regime, I didn’t see anything like that.”
For 68-year-old Kim Meng, the festival was a chance to take stock in the state of the country’s development. The event was safer and the city more developed than at any time he’d seen before.
“I think the young people come here only to have fun,” he said, adding that the festival was a good opportunity for the roughly two-thirds of the country under the age of 30 to elope with their (sometimes secret) lovers.
“And we older people came to see how our country is developing, how our government is doing,” he said.
But 23-year-old call center worker Srey Toch, waiting to catch a glimpse of King Norodom Sihamoni as he traveled from the palace to his waterfront grandstand, said her elders were mistaken.
“My main interest is boat racing,” she said. “I think if there was no boat racing, there would be nothing else.”
“This is our most important festival,” she said.