Sitting by the Tonle Sap river with his T-shirt rolled up, exposing a barrel-like stomach, Soy Son, the chief of a boat from Kompong Cham province, remembers the days when groups of oarsmen would finish their races and indulge in a long tradition of trawling the city for sex.
“I remember in 1993 and 1995 when the boat racers would go in big groups to massage parlors, brothels and karaoke parlors,” he said. “It was normal. They were not shy back then.”
But after years of the municipal government trying to curb prostitution during the festival, along with the dissemination of information about the risks of contracting diseases through sex with strangers, it appears that for many, the culture of gallivanting under the cover of darkness is becoming a distant memory.
“Only about 10 percent of racers go to find sex, whereas before it was about half of the team members,” Mr. Son said.
“Even when the racers come with their families they can still sneak off and have sex secretly,” said Mr. Son, a rice farmer.
“But because a lot of people now have had some experience with people they know contracting AIDS, we don’t go to have sex with prostitutes because we are afraid of getting a disease,” he added. “So after we race, we just rest and eat rice.”
Marie-Odile Emond, country coordinator for UNAIDS, said the Water Festival remains a time when thousands of men pour in from the provinces, drink, and often procure prostitutes, but said there is increased awareness of the risks posed by reckless sexual behavior.
“This is the time when people are moving between provinces and looking for entertaining services,” she said. “Data shows there is good awareness of HIV and the importance of using condoms. People also spread the message to use protection during sex.”
Ieng Moly, chairman of the National AIDS Authority (NAA), said the organization distributed a quarter of a million condoms during the festival to promote safe sex, with public health NGOs contributing equal amounts to the cause.
According to the NAA, the percentage of the country’s population with HIV or AIDS has dropped from a peak of 1.7 percent in 1998 to about 0.7 percent this year, about 55,000 people in total. But sex workers and the men who purchase their services remain among the most vulnerable groups in the country.
Mr. Moly said the NAA was focusing much of its efforts on ensuring that entertainment workers have access to health services, and, if they are found to have HIV or AIDS, do not spread it to their clients.
“Our biggest success is seeing the transmission rate for ladies who work at entertainment places dropping significantly,” he said. “Among the commercial sex industry, we see there’s good rates of condom use, it’s usually well protected.”
Long Dimanche, spokesman for City Hall, said the authorities have played their part in cleaning up the city’s sex trade during the festival by taking women off the street and encouraging them to find a different way to make money.
“We always take action every year, not just this year,” Mr. Dimanche said. “But this year we made more effort to not just collect sex workers], but to work with NGOs to find strategies to educate them and provide them with training so that they have other occupations that allow them to get out of prostitution.”
However, Nong Chhoeun, a tuk-tuk driver waiting for customers by the riverside Friday, said from his observations, enforcement was far from active during the Water Festival.
“I see authorities come and take prostitutes off the streets during the year, but not so much during Water Festival. Maybe they are busy with other things,” he said.
But despite coming across a group of some 30 boat racers looking to pick up prostitutes Thursday night, Mr. Chhoeun said he had also noticed fewer oarsmen on the prowl compared to previous years.
“They mainly go to Wat Phnom and find girls walking the streets whom they pay about $5 for sex,” he said. “But there seem to be fewer men looking for girls this year compared to the last festival. I don’t see so many leave their tents.”
Boat racer Tea San, 42, from Kratie province, said his 45-man team has specifically been told by their coaches to abstain from the debauchery of the past.
“We don’t go anywhere after the race because the team’s managers don’t allow us to,” he said. “They worry that if we go off with girls or drink, we will have less energy to race the next day.”