siem reap town – Although expected to be unmanageable throughout a weekend of millennium celebrations, a somewhat- controlled bustle dominated this otherwise peaceful town as it geared up for the party of the century.
Conservative estimates by provincial and police sources placed the number of arrivals on Thursday—by both Cambodians and foreigners—at between 10,000 and 20,000. Exact numbers were impossible to determine. Police said they were ready for up to 100,000 people.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve.
Outside the main temple complex, a Khmer Woodstock was taking shape Thursday afternoon, with families camping out, swimming in the moat around Angkor Wat, playing music and imbibing in large beer tents. Inside, self-styled VIPs took their places on a dais set up for speeches by government officials and traditional dance performances throughout the weekend.
Later in the evening, fireworks and appearances by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh were scheduled.
Duong Sophannareth, chief of cabinet for Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalyvuth, said that most of the roughly 1,200 hotel rooms in town were booked, not including dozens of guest houses. But, a handful of hoteliers said they had just filled up on Thursday.
As for security, the number of military police was tripled for the event, according to Prak Chanthoeun, deputy commander of the Siem Reap military police, who was stationed just outside the main temple complex.
“Our first priority is to keep the Cambodian people happy during the festival—including the foreign people. Because this might be the only time it happens like this,” he said.
He added that one in five of the soldiers were armed, “in case of the normal crimes, like robbery or shootings.” But he said their main concern was controlling traffic.
Around Angkor Wat Thursday afternoon, traffic was manageable, as police diverted cars and motorbikes to travel in one direction on each road, producing an almost-pilgrimage effect approaching the temples.
One entire village of people from Siem Reap province walked several hours just to get to the festival, after their commune chief handed out free tickets to get inside the main area.
Loaded down with bags full of mats, food and water, the colorfully clad villagers said they planned to spend the night on the temple grounds like thousands of others predicted to do the same.
“We are so happy to see all the people,” said villager Choeun May, 49. “But looking at them all, I’m afraid I might get sick.”
As expected, few portable toilets were set up for the hoards of campers.
Another group of revelers rode their bicycles all the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap just to see the sights along the way and “push our bodies to the fullest capacity,” said Hon Sopheak, a 19-year-old student.
When asked if he thinks it’s strange that a Buddhist nation celebrates a predominately Western holiday, one monk said that festivals are “human” above all else.
“If there’s a holiday, we Cambodians will celebrate. Christian, Buddhist, it’s the same. It’s human,” said Bin Bun, a senior monk from Kompong Cham who came to Siem Reap by pickup truck.
“And we humans, we all want the same thing: security, safety and peace.”