Festival-goers came out in the tens of thousands Tuesday, jamming the streets, dancing to rock music and raptly watching the boat races.
The yearly event drew all kinds of people. Tonle Sap racing and other Water Festival activities are scheduled to conclude today.
Some people said they make a beeline for the festival every year. Others have never been before.
“In previous years, I came to Phnom Penh during the festival but only to go to the hospital,” said Puy Symany, 33, an RCAF Division 1 soldier from Kompong Chhnang province.
One monk said that in his four years at the riverside Wat Ounalom, he’d never left the wat’s premises during the Water Festival in order to avoid the crowds.
Two farmers from Svay Rieng province at the festival said they came to Phnom Penh only to find work, not to celebrate the holiday.
But the common denominator Tuesday was that everybody was having a good time. “I’m visiting everything,” said Khan Sea, a 32-year-old farmer from Kandal province.
Adults carried children. Groups of boys bumped into each other as they strode side by side through the crowds. People hunkered down in the shade of the Royal Palace to dodge the blistering sun. Beggars and vendors lined the streets. A one-legged man wearing an embroidered sports jacket hobbled after people for blocks asking them to buy him a shoe for his wooden leg.
What also makes this year’s festival special for the festival-goers is that King Norodom Sihanouk is in Phnom Penh, a rare occurrence since the then-prince was deposed in 1970.
But others complained of the economic crunch, saying it was much easier for wealthy people to have a good time. “This festival is not as good as other years,” said 36-year-old naval training officer Muy Saroeun who was accompanied by his four children. “This stuff is only for a rich man.”
Opinion was divided over whether this year’s festival was better than in other years. Any reason given Tuesday by one festival-goer one way or the other was disputed by another person.
Som Poeus, a 20-year-old woman from Phnom Penh, said the fact that the King is in Phnom Penh has drawn bigger crowds than in other years. While the monarch’s presence makes the festival particularly special for her, she also complained that this year it is too crowded.
Puy Symany, the Division 1 soldier, disagreed, saying the more the merrier. “It makes me happy that it’s so crowded,” he said. “The more people, the better.”
The soldier said he’d “just come out of the jungle” after his commander allowed him three days off to join the festival.
Vy Veng, a 39-year-old businessman from Kandal who was joined by his wife and two children, said this year’s festival was more organized than others. “There’s more things happening,” he said. “It’s more colorful.”
Another Kandal resident who said he showed up every year said the festival was not as “glorious” as in other years, but when asked declined to say why.
The farmers from Svay Rieng, So Phal and Mau, said they were happy despite being penniless. “We’re happy even if we don’t have any money,” said So Phal, who added he was going to continue to look for work.