Races Raise Excitement for Return of Water Festival

Thousands of competitors and spectators headed to Phnom Penh’s riverside on Sunday as preliminary races got underway for the upcoming Water Festival, which begins Wednesday.

Hundreds of competitors sat under trees or wandered along the waterfront with oars over their shoulders as crowds and anticipation built throughout the morning.

Teams of competitors prepare to race in preliminary rounds of the Water Festival boat races on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Teams of competitors prepare to race in preliminary rounds of the Water Festival boat races on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The Water Festival is being celebrated this year for the first time since 2010, when more than 350 people died in a stampede on an overcrowded bridge on the final night of the festival.

Keat Kon, who towed his boat from Kratie province, said he was overjoyed that the festival had returned.

“We are very happy, this is our tradition. We are not concerned …because we have not had any bad things happen this year like the king dying or flooding. There are no bad signs,” Mr. Kon said.

“A long time ago, we would use boats to fight. This is one of the very few times in the year when families and friends come together and celebrate,” he said.

Sunday’s preliminary races, trials to seed teams for the festival’s main contests, got underway at about 1:30 p.m. with a number of close calls whipping up excitement in the 2,000-strong crowd.

There was a brief period of drama just before 2 p.m. when a man from the Kiri Techo Senchey team fell overboard and had to be taken to shore in a police boat as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Five minutes later, a boat carrying a team from Kompong Speu province began to sink after filling up with water halfway through a race and had to be rescued by another boat nearby.

“We are really disappointed, because we were supposed to win. The whole race was ruined,” said racer Pou Sophea.

Other preparations for the festival were in full swing along the riverside, with marquees being erected and drink vendors setting up shop.

Tep Loun, a street vendor who has been selling potato chips and sodas on Sisowath Quay since 1995, said she hoped the festival would triple her usual profits.

“I think business will be good this week, even better than at previous festivals. On a normal day, I will make 30,000 riel [about $7.50], but this week, I estimate I’ll be making 90,000 riel [about $22.50],” she said.

But she said she was concerned about the potential for trouble after a fireworks explosion in Phnom Penh killed a man last week.

“I’m so happy that the festival is back—we are back to normal—but some people are scared because of the fireworks. I think it could be a bad sign.”

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