Fewer than 100,000 people came to Phnom Penh over the first two days of the Water Festival, according to estimates from the city government, a sharp decline from previous years, when more than 1 million visitors would flood into the city.
But while numbers are down at the first Water Festival since a 2010 stampede at a festival concert killed 353 people, spirits are not.
All along both banks of the Tonle Sap river Thursday, people flew balloons, picnicked and partied.
“It doesn’t matter how many people come,” said Chea Bonthen, a 37-year-old mechanic from Kandal province, as his son returned from buying a Mickey Mouse balloon on the Sisowath Quay esplanade. “We can still have fun together.”
Long Dimanche, spokesman for the municipality, said that numbers were way down from previous years’ festivals.
“There are between 70,000 and 80,000 people who participated in the ceremony,” Mr. Dimanche said, attributing the decline to fear of an accident following the 2010 disaster and the death of a man from faulty fireworks at the king’s coronation anniversary last week.
“They are concerned and scared that some accident will occur,” he said. “They know about it because the newspapers published stories.”
Teams of police and military police cut paths through the festival crowds, many of them heavily armed. Officers from the National Counter-Terrorism Special Force stood guard at certain posts around the city.
Mr. Dimanche said that in the first two days of the festival, there had been minor crimes reported, such as bag snatching, but that there were no serious issues with safety or security.
In the Ministry of Tourism’s pavilion “for foreign visitors” near the race finish line, a steady stream of tourists and expats filed in and out to see the colorful spectacle unfold.
“I don’t understand the racing,” said Tomiko Aishi, a 21-year-old student holidaying from Tokyo. “But I have watched the participants and it appears that the racers are more interested in having fun.”
Pavel Zvolanek, a 47-year-old Czech man who works as a tour guide in Jakarta, said he had seen the boat racing previously, in 2008.
“It’s great to come back and see the tradition stays,” he said. “I am impressed. This event is unique. Cambodia is now more friendly for tourists than Thailand—I get a good feeling here.
“We came to see the Royal Palace, but it is closed. This will do.”
Graeme Baines, a 67-year-old from Manchester, England, also stumbled across the Water Festival by chance while holidaying with his wife. They were being led around by a guide from the Ministry of Tourism.
“Our understanding is that some people grease the palms of other people to ensure that certain boats win,” he said, nodding to his tour guide when asked where he had got that information.
Despite not being able to grasp the format of the races, Mr. Baines said witnessing an undecipherable sport for the first time was preferable to watching the famous but floundering Premier League football team based in his hometown.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but you can be sure it’s better than being at home watching Manchester United right now,” he said.