Sok Sotr of Takeo province was one of tens of thousands of Cambodians who flocked to Phnom Penh this weekend to celebrate the annual Water Festival. But her story was perhaps a bit different from many: It was the first time her family had celebrated the event, which marks the unique reversal of the Tonle Sap river current.
“We wanted to bring our daughters to see the colorful boat races and fireworks,” said 38-year-old Sok Sotr. “We’re having a great time here. We’re very happy.”
The three-day festival, which ends today with boat-racing finals, is drawing more people than ever because of a new feeling of security, officials maintained.
“More people are coming to Phnom Penh this year to participate in the festival, because we now have political stability and peace,” said Chea Kean, director of administration for the National and International Festival Committee. Even a storm that disrupted the boat races late Monday afternoon didn’t discourage Cambodians from taking to the riverfront Monday evening to see the fireworks.
As in years past, vendors lined the riverfront and city parks near the Royal Palace. Beer and tobacco companies sponsored music concerts and makeshift midways added more color to the capital’s celebration.
And, as promised by the police, traffic did seem to be a bit less congested than usual.
Ngy Chantal, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Rural Development who also sponsors a boat, noted more enthusiasm and a sense of cooperation. And “that revitalizes the city,” he said.
King Norodom Sihanouk braved the crowds Sunday to make a brief appearance from the Royal Palace, telling the crowds: “I am very happy to be with my beloved children and I thank you all for coming out to attend this ceremony.” When the royal couple stood on the observation platform to applaud racers’ efforts, racers showed their joy by dancing and chanting.
Kim Huon of Phnom Penh was among hundreds of people who stood right behind the platform to try to get a glimpse of the King.
“I’ve never seen the King in person, only on TV,” said the 55-year-old housewife. “This will… bring me luck.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Senate President Chea Sim also watched much of the event, but officials said National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh was unable to attend due to an undisclosed illness. Many other important government officials, representatives of international organizations and foreign embassies also attended.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara ordered brothels to be closed, in an effort to prevent an increase in AIDS infections among pleasure-seeking participants. However, while a number of brothels were closed Sunday evening, nearly all brothels in Phnom Penh’s infamous Tuol Kok red-light district were observed to be in operation later Sunday night.
Some 373 brightly painted long boats were entered in the races, commemorating the glory of the Khmer navy when the Angkorians ruled much of the region. State-run TVK broadcasted the racing live.
But Chea Sophara conceded the festivities also could mark a losing battle to stop revelers from messing up the results of a year-long beautification project. “There will be some damage and a lot of trash too, but there is nothing much we can do about it,” Chea Sophara said.
The government will spend 800 million riel ($205,000) from the national budget to organize the race, secure the streets and clean up the trash.
The festival is scheduled to end at 5 pm today with a boat-lighting ceremony.
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse)