King Norodom Sihanouk Thursday lit a ceremonial flame to celebrate Independence Day, a flame that will burn throughout the three-day Water Festival that begins today.
The ceremony, at the Independence Monument, marks the 47th anniversary of the day in 1953 when Cambodia won its freedom from its colonizer, France.
More than 15,000 officials and flag-waving schoolchildren, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, watched as the frail-looking King greeted the crowd. He made no public statement.
The ceremony, during which doves and multi-colored balloons were sent soaring into the sky, is “very important for the nation,” Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said.
With peace, stability and the king’s presence, he said, “this year’s event is more gracious and meaningful than ever.”
And this year’s Water Festival promises to be one of the biggest ever, with more than 400 boats and 25,000 oarsmen battling it out on the fast-running Tonle Sap.
As many as 1 million people are expected to flock to Phnom Penh for the races and other festivities, which will be extensive and virtually non-stop between today and Sunday.
Brightly colored boats from across the country—and, for the first time, two crews from Burma—will race on the river in front of the Royal Palace.
City officials have deployed 3,400 police to keep order and prevent the streets from grinding to a complete halt. Vehicles are banned for the duration from nearly 70 city blocks, from Norodom Boulevard east to the waterfront.
The festival, which draws more people to Phnom Penh than any other yearly event, celebrates the Tonle Sap’s change of direction and the traditional start of the fishing season.
It includes fireworks, moon prayers and lighted boats that carry the emblems of various ministries. On Sunday, King Sihanouk is scheduled to watch the final races and award prizes.
This year the festival will also include extensive free entertainment, provided at the Royal Plowing Ground by the Ministry of Culture and TV5.
Two major corporations—Coca-Cola and Mobitel—are each sponsoring a large number of boats. Coke is sponsoring 50 teams through its local bottling plant, Cambodia Beverage Co Ltd, while Mobitel is sponsoring 55.
Festival organizers have asked the government for 1 billion riel ($257,000) to pay for the fireworks and other expenses, although they say they may not get the full amount because of the high expenses for relief supplies in this year’s flooding.
Once again, officials are warning festival-goers about the danger of HIV/AIDS. Officials don’t want them taking AIDS home with them, so city officials plan to close brothels and volunteers will be handing out 53,000 free condoms to festival crowds.
Another 150,000 condoms will be distributed to female factory workers, while Population Services International hopes to sell 400,000 condoms at 100 riel for a four-pack.
(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)