By taxi, by moto, and even by oxcart, they arrived by the thousands. Cambodians from all over the country descended upon Phnom Penh this week, packing the National Museum, the Royal Palace, and, of course, the riverfront.
Many had never seen the city before. Even though he only lives about 25 km away, Ven Ros, a rice farmer from Kompong Speu, was seeing Phnom Penh for the first time. He put his farming on hold to try to make a profit selling straw hats, fans, and baskets during the festival. He hoped to earn $5 or $6, based on a profit margin of 100 riel ($0.02) on each sale.
The festival can be a huge risk for many visiting vendors. “Some people from my province came here empty-handed,” said Sam Chham, 33, from Prey Veng province. “They got here and bought oranges, noodles, and peanuts to try and sell them on the street. Some will lose money; others might have made $8-$20.”
For many, the journey itself was an arduous ordeal. Sam Lun, 44, had to save 90,000 riel (about $22.50) and sell her 6-month-old pigs to make the bumpy, 400km trip from her remote village in Banteay Meanchey province. She, like many others, was here to reunite with family who live in Phnom Penh.
Back in Phnom Penh for the first time since March 1975, she said she was disappointed at the changes that had taken place. “It is not as beautiful as it used to be,” she said. “Now there is garbage everywhere, many sewage problems, and the streets are broken.”
Khan, 54, from Kandal province, did not share Sam Lun’s complaints. A first-time visitor, she and her 25-year-old daughter, Naron, who works in Phnom Penh, admired the exterior of the Royal Palace.
“It’s just as pretty as I thought it would be. It’s so sanitary,” Khan said of Phnom Penh. “But it’s also very expensive, and I’m a little worried about crime.”
For Mok Kongkea, 30, a trip to Phnom Penh is usually fraught with worry. Her trips to the city before have been to treat her six- year-old son’s medical needs. But this trip was purely for pleasure, she said. She brought her son, daughter and nephew to watch the boat races. “I am so happy to be here! I want to be a rower when I grow up!” said her 9-year-old daughter.
Inside the National Museum was a family from Banteay Meanchey province. The taxi ride to the capital took 12 hours and it rained all the way, but it was worth it, said Sek Sokhon, 52. He grew up watching the boat races when his family lived on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. His 13-year-old granddaughter was seeing the city for the first time.
An official at Banteay Meanchey’s Ministry of Religion and Cults, Sek Sokhon said that he brought the children to watch the boat races and to the museum for the same reason: to learn about Cambodian culture. “I am very proud of our history, and concerned for the future of Cambodia,” he said. “I am worried that since we live along the Thai border, the children will not know Cambodian traditions.”
Although he remembers the races fondly from before they stopped when war broke out in 1970, he said the water festival is stronger now than it has ever been, drawing bigger crowds, more rowers, and stronger boats than before wartime.
“For a while, Cambodian culture was in decline, but now it is recovering again,” Sek Sokhon said. Unfortunately, he noted, the recovery of his nation’s culture since wartime has moved more slowly than the rebirth of the water festival.
Yey Lor, 62, from Kampot Province, was also visiting her daughter. “It is my first time to watch the boat racing, and to see the Royal Palace. I’ll come back for the races next year if I am still alive,” she said.