As crowds surged along Phnom Penh’s riverfront Tuesday, hundreds of boaters raced into the final hours of the annual three-day Water Festival.
Spectators included King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath, who greeted the rowing teams from a reviewing stand overlooking the Tonle Sap. In response, the racers shouted to the King and Queen affectionately, “Choyo Samdech Ta, Samdech Youy!”
Judges delayed announcing this year’s winners, citing heavy showers that forced an early conclusion to Monday’s races. Among the finalists for top honors were seven pairs of boats that were singled out by judges for special recognition.
Of those 14 boats, three were listed as being sponsored by Prime Minister Hun Sen and one each by Municipal Governor Chea Sophara, National Police Director General Hok Lundy and Cabinet Minister Sok An.
Some of the fastest boats are being invited to participate in a private boat race today in Takhmau, hosted by Hun Sen for top government officials and other dignitaries.
There are no losers in the boat races, which commemorate a 12th-century naval victory over Cham forces. Even teams that lose each day are given honorary fourth prizes. Officials put the final total of boats at 377.
Although this year’s race got off to a shaky start, with several boats sinking on Sunday, Bou Chum Serey, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education and head of the boat control sub-committee, said it went more smoothly than in previous years. There were no casualties in the water. He added that the sub-committee worked harder to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Chea Sophara ordered brothels closed, but many were observed to be open.
Along the riverfront, the mood was generally jubilant. Thirty-five-year-old vendor So Maly, who joined his son and daughter to watch the races, said, “I closed my shop for three days just to enjoy the water festival.”
But Teng Sopheak, a security officer charged with controlling tens of thousands of visitors, complained of long hours. “For almost three days and three nights, I’ve had almost no sleep.”
The Associated Press reported that 23 pickpockets were arrested by police along the riverfront, while two robbers were reportedly shot by police Monday after snatching a woman’s necklace.