After three Novembers bereft of its color and pomp, the Water Festival is back in Phnom Penh.
Thousands of Cambodians resumed a centuries-old tradition Wednesday, streaming into the capital to party and watch boat races for the first time since 353 revelers were killed in a panic-induced stampede at the end of the festival in 2010.
A carnival atmosphere descended on the parks around Wat Botum and Wat Phnom, while Koh Pich island became a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from whitening cream to teddy bears, with hawkers competing for consumers’ attention by blasting music through stacks of giant speakers.
But the boat racing—with 245 crews entered from across the country—was the main attraction.
“That is what we came to see,” said Pheang Panha, 20, who traveled with her sister from Preah Vihear province to Phnom Penh for the first time.
“We have seen the city and the boat racing on television before and we have been waiting for four years to come and see it for ourselves,” she said.
Throngs of merrymakers, mostly from the countryside, packed both banks of the Tonle Sap river to witness teams of uniformed oarsmen stream down the center of the waterway. On board, hype-men banged drums and shouted through battery-powered bullhorns.
A challenge by Prime Minister Hun Sen to his deputy, Sok An, was accepted, and their rival crews went head-to-head, fighting all the way to the finish line and claiming one narrow victory each. But Mr. An’s boat, Kiri Vong Sok Sen Chey, defeated Mr. Hun Sen’s Srey Mao Kraing Yov based on cumulative race times. The victorious crew celebrated all the way back to the dock, roaring with each stroke as they propelled their boat upstream.
At about 4:30 p.m., the prime minister and National Assembly President Heng Samrin accompanied King Norodom Sihamoni to a pavilion overlooking the river at the finish line. Mr. Hun Sen, however, had missed his team’s race by about an hour.
“I am not worried about the result,” Heng Koy, 60, the coach of the prime minister’s crew, said after the race. “Tomorrow, we will work hard to make improvements in areas where we are lacking.”
In another high-powered match-up, boats sponsored by National Military Police commander Sao Sokha and Hing Bun Heang, chief of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit, faced off.
“Our boat is made from luxury wood from the koki tree,” said Be Bin, first mate of Peam Meanchey Baromey Tuol Tras, General Sokha’s boat, ahead of the race.
The valuable wood was not enough for a decisive victory, though, with the powerful officials taking one win apiece.
All 245 boats, based on the result of their races Wednesday, have been reseeded for a second round Thursday.
Bou Chumserey, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education who has helped coordinate the race schedule, said that, like the crowds watching, entries were well down compared to past years. In 2010, 441 boats competed.
Mr. Chumserey said many of the rowers who competed in previous festivals had retired, and that younger athletes had left their homes and become disconnected from their roots.
“Some of our youths have left their villages to work in industrial zones [in Cambodia] and tens of thousands have gone to work in Korea, Thailand or other countries, leaving us with less boats,” he said.
As Wednesday afternoon wore on, the Sisowath Quay riverfront began to swell with people.
Pov Thorn, a 49-year-old from Kompong Chhnang province, was selling kralan—a dessert made with sticky rice—on the esplanade, just as he had at past festivals.
Mr. Thorn said that he and his wife had loaded about 100 of the bamboo-wrapped desserts onto a single motorbike and made the journey down National Road 5 to sell them for $0.75 each.
And while he said business was far worse than at previous Water Festivals, his seller’s spirit was unwavering.
“We will stay here until we sell them all,” he said. “Then we will drive home, load the motorbike and come back again.”
As the sun set on the festival’s first day, Pon Sam, 62, sat perched on the western bank of the river sharing a bottle of green tea with her husband while watching the final races.
Ms. Sam, from Prey Veng province, compared Wednesday’s crowds to those of the 1950s and 1960s, when then Prince Norodom Sihanouk ruled the country.
“I have been coming to the festival since I was 10 years old and these small crowds today are about the same as then,” she said.
But the reduction in revelers did not bother her husband, 64-year-old Thy Thuon.
“I came to see the boat races in 2009 but I couldn’t walk anywhere,” Mr. Thuon said, referring to the usual crush of people on the riverside during the festival.
“This year, my neighbor told me not to come because it would be very crowded. But I ignored him and came anyway. Right now, I can sit right here and watch all of the racing very easily,” he said.
“We are very happy.”