Srey Nung kept her face clean and shrugged at the mad, talcum-caked scene at Wat Phnom on Thursday, the finale of the Khmer New Year holiday.
“It’s the same number of people as last year. They do the same thing,” the 20-year-old said, just before a teenager smeared her face with baby powder.
Srey Nung laughed and joined the festivities, and the party trotted on in Phnom Penh and across the country. Though Thursday marked the end of the three-day holiday, revelers said they planned to extend their celebration for a few days more.
“It’s over tomorrow, but I’m going to keep coming and playing the carnival games all weekend,” said Thon Raksmey, 22, who came to the capital from Svay Rieng province with a group of friends.
The biggest parties, however, were outside Phnom Penh. Tens of thousands of visitors flocked to the beaches of Sihanoukville and the tourist gateway of Siem Reap for the week, filling guest houses and hotels despite their customary hiked-up prices.
“There are no rooms to rent anymore,” said Ny San Dyvy of the Siem Reap Hotel Association, acknowledging that some were doubling their prices.
An estimated 20,000 visitors thronged to Sihanoukville, said Deputy Governor Sboang Sarath. “Most of the people come to visit because they want to swim,” he said.
The powder mania continued, but in Phnom Penh at least, the customary dumping of water on passers-by was mostly abandoned. The municipality asked citizens to stop throwing water in order to avoid traffic accidents—a measure lamented by Muth Thon, a 21-year-old photographer snapping holiday portraits at Wat Phnom.
“It’s because the police are so strict, the people don’t want to come to Phnom Penh,” he said.
Phnom Penh hotel owners said they were struggling through the holidays, with some offering free food and promotional gifts to draw an occasional guest.
“This is not a good holiday for the hotels,” said Tek Ket, president of the Phnom Penh Hotel Association.
“The view in the city is the same, so people want to go to the countryside and see something different,” he said.
The New Year’s celebration sparked nostalgia for 72-year-old Tat Marong, who remembered more stately festivities in the 1960s as he walked around Wat Phnom with his grandson. He said they used powder and water in that time, as well, but the powder was applied artfully to the face and the water was scented with lotus flowers and perfume.
Now, he said, it’s mostly an excuse for indecent petting between young men and women.
“When I was growing up, we used the powder as makeup, to make you beautiful. Not like this,” he said, as groups of young people covered in talcum walked past.