The three-day Water Festival concluded Wednesday with thousands crowding the waterfront to watch the final boat races and see King Norodom Sihanouk preside over the day’s events, ending with a firework display over the Tonle Sap.
CPP President Chea Sim, deputy prime minister Ing Kieth and other dignitaries accompanied the monarch and his wife, Queen Monineath, in a VIP pavilion on the waterfront.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen did not join other dignitaries at the pavilion on any of the three festival days because of illness, a senior aide said.
It was the King who held this final-day crowd in his sway, waving to the crowds and wishing encouragement to the teams of boats racing in front of the stand.
The King did not attend last year’s Water Festival, held four months after violent street fighting erupted in the capital. Racers and spectators alike were hoping this year for a glimpse of their monarch on one his rare public appearances in the capital.
“When the King comes to see the boat race, everyone is very happy, even those who lost the race. Everyone wins,” said Cheam Sophon, a 61-year-old Phnom Penh resident, watching the races from the shade of an old black parasol.
On the river itself, the presence of the King was crucial for Moan Sokang, an oarsman with a boat team from Kompong Thom province.
“I saw the King on Monday. I was very happy to see him. Seeing him inspired me to row harder and faster,” he said.
Moan Sokang’s devotion paid off on Wednesday when the crew beat a team from Kandal province, but only after losing to a boat from Phnom Penh on Monday and one from Prey Veng on Tuesday.
“It’s great to see our father who loves his children,” chipped in a fellow crew member.
After each race, the crews rowed over to the royal pavilion to offer their respects and chant songs in praise of the monarch, accompanied by loud applause.
“Long live the King,” they sang. “Long live the Queen.”
Some spectators played traditional instruments, others improvised drums with plastic water bottles and plates, beating out a rhythm for the oarsmen and dancers on board as the boats glided past the stand.
In a speech relayed to the crowd via loudspeaker, the King thanked the crews for taking part in this important national festival.
“I am very happy to have an opportunity to see you, my beloved countrymen,” he said. “I am happy that you have come to commemorate this national tradition.”
His blessing, for both winners and losers, did not however prevent one boat from sinking only minutes after the King took his place in the pavilion. The crew escaped and the boat was towed to the water’s edge.
Among the swarms of people craning their necks to see the races were some, such as Thoren Chay, from Kompong Speu province, who were making their first visit to the capital. “I’m so excited,” he said, watching the boats from the waterfront with his 5-year-old son and 10-year-old niece. Thorn Chay said he brought the children to see the boats, but his main hope was that they would catch a glimpse of King Sihanouk.
“I love the King,” he said. “He protects Cambodia and the people.”