Brilliant sunshine bathed the opening day of the 2005 Water Festival on Tuesday, buoying the spirits of the 20,000 boat racers and the masses of spectators who are calling Phnom Penh home this week.
The Water Festival is the week when an increasingly cosmopolitan Phnom Penh is reclaimed by rural Cambodians, and when people from the provinces reacquaint themselves with the ever-changing capital.
“The Festival is very important for the countryside people,” Tes Vanna, a 50-year-old farmer from Svay Rieng province, said in front of the Royal Palace.
“It gives villagers an opportunity to visit this city,” he said.
Mam Bun Neang, deputy municipal governor, said 2 million people would be flocking in from the countryside for the three-day event, which continues through Thursday.
Mann Chhoeun, also a deputy municipal governor, said 20,000 boat racers from across Cambodia are attending.
The festival, presided over by King Norodom Sihamoni, features an international competition for the first time with the six nations of the greater Mekong subregion—Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China—competing against each other.
Cambodia raced against Burma on Tuesday, and won, while Tourism Ministry Secretary of State Thong Khon said today’s races will feature a race between Vietnam and Cambodia at 4 pm.
Hong Than, a police official checking access passes in front of the Royal Palace, said crowd control was not a problem.
“This year people are very orderly. People are listening to police and aren’t making problems,” he said, adding that he has been involved in the festival for many years.
But accommodating the spectators and boat racers is a serious health challenge for municipal authorities.
Mam Bun Neang said 200 public toilets have been installed for the festival, adding that he believes this is adequate.
Racers, however, complained that facilities remain inadequate for the assembled crowds, who sleep in makeshift camps around the city.
“The city should have informed us of where to stay and where to find toilets,” said Keo Toth, a 53-year-old boat racer from Kratie province.
Teammate Nam Vantha, 26, displayed a fistful of condoms given to him by an NGO and said he planned to use them that night.
Kong Yem, 70, also from Svay Rieng, said he could not miss the festival because he was a racer in the 1960s—a period he said he misses. Commenting on King Sihamoni, Kong Yem said: “He looks handsome.”
“Cambodia seems peaceful,” he added.
Intermixed with the mass of humanity were thousands of vendors hawking everything—from what were reportedly elephant tusks and tiger claws from Ratanakkiri province to brightly colored palm-leaf hats.
At numerous booths, spectators could buy small, rolled-up pieces of paper that would win them dollar bills if, when unrolled, they matched with a number posted to a board in front of them.
Echoing complaints from years past, vendors said police were once again demanding cuts from their profits.
One 55-year-old snack vendor identifying herself as Thy said she had paid police $15 to set up her booth next to the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I have to pay at every police barricade along the road if I want to bring in more stuff from outside,” she said.
A short distance away, next to Chaktomuk Theater, two military police and four police officials blocked the road, demanding between 500 and 2,000 riel from motorbike drivers carrying goods to sell.
“This is a traditional way for police to make money,” Thy said. “They have been working this way since 1993.”
(Additional reporting by Erik Wasson)