While the eyes of Phnom Penh are on more than 400 boats racing in the Tonle Sap river in front of the Royal Palace, a smaller Water Festival competition is under way on the Siem Reap river.
Ung Oeun, first deputy governor of Siem Reap province, said a crowd of about 20,000 watched 30 boats race Tuesday. Races will conclude today, with a parade of lighted boats scheduled for Thursday night.
Officials have previously tried to stage races in the moat around Angkor Wat, but boat and spectator traffic hastened erosion along the embankments.
This year’s race course is adjacent to King Norodom Sihanouk’s Siem Reap palace, just east of the park that stretches between the palace and the Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
Since the Siem Reap river is much smaller than the Tonle Sap river, the boats are smaller, too, carrying only 20 rowers. The Tonle Sap river boats often carry as many as 60 rowers, with some new boats this year carrying as many as 100 rowers.
The Siem Reap boats are being sponsored by provincial departments, parliamentarians, businessmen and tourist agencies, Ung Oeun said. The city’s businesses are working to boost tourism, which has suffered since the Sept 11 attacks in the US, he added.
Tourism in Cambodia is down about 30 percent compared to the same time last year. Some hotels in Siem Reap report bookings off by 50 percent or more, while airline ticket sales have dropped so sharply some flights have been canceled.
Officials at the Ministry of Tourism say they are working with the government to lower costs for travelers in an attempt to attract more visitors from the Pacific Region.
Ung Oeun said he hopes more Thai, Chinese, and Japanese visitors will take up the slack. Seventeen million Japanese travel each year, with one million going to Thailand, 500,000 going to Vietnam and only 50,000 visiting Cambodia, officials say.
“We hope that more tourists will come to Siem Reap in January,” Ung Oeun said.