Water Festival Vendors See Little to Celebrate

As revelers lined the banks of the Tonle Sap river and filled parks around central Phnom Penh during the second day of the Water Festival on Thursday, Uk Bunthorn said there was little for him to celebrate.

Mr. Bunthorn, who sells Rosso brand men’s underwear, said that over the past 15 years, whenever there has been a Water Festival, he has set up a booth selling discounted briefs, often in bulk.

People enjoy the second day of the Water Festival on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh on Thursday as boats race along the Tonle Sap river. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
People enjoy the second day of the Water Festival on Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh on Thursday as boats race along the Tonle Sap river. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

And the festival has always been hugely profitable for his business.

In previous years, he said, he sold an average of $17,000 to $18,000 worth of underwear, Mr. Bunthorn claimed.

But this year, he would be lucky to turn a profit at all, he said.

“We aren’t selling a lot like we did in previous years, so we can’t even afford the [booth] rental fee,” he said. “We hope we can get just $3,000 this year.”

Mr. Bunthorn said that in addition to the $1,000 the city charged him to rent a stall, he also has to pay $600 to about 10 employees working for him during the three-day festival, which ends today.

At the end of the Water Festival in 2010, 353 people were killed in a panic-induced stampede on a bridge to Koh Pich island. This year—the first time the festival has been held since—authorities have ramped up security, and insist they are prepared to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

But vendors at some of the than 300 booths set up on Koh Pich on Thursday said would-be revelers are still staying away from the city, and sales are way down.

Exacerbating the problem, Mr. Bunthorn said, is the city’s decision to confine most of the vendors to Koh Pich rather than around NagaWorld, where they set up shop in previous years.

“It would be easy if we could sell around the NagaWorld ar- ea,” he said. “But it’s difficult for us [on Koh Pich] because most of the streets leading here are blocked.”

Preap Moni Chenda, a promoter for Revlon cosmetics, said she has braced herself for a 50 percent decrease in sales compared to previous festivals.

“There are not so many people walking around here,” Ms. Moni Chenda said at her booth on Koh Pich. “People have to walk a long way because our location has changed [this year].”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche could not be reached Thursday.

Long Chetra, a sales manager for Duro Motorcycle Tires, whose booth stands near the Koh Pich bridge, said the shadow of the 2010 stampede was keeping customers away.

“The stampede remains in the minds of the people,” Mr. Chetra said. “It will take two or three [more] years for them to forget about it.”

Mr. Chetra said that in 2010, he sold 80 percent of his tires, but only expects to sell 40 percent of his $15,000 stock this year.

But despite the drop in sales, hawkers on Koh Pich weren’t planning to pack up and go home quietly. Vendors, each with their own sound system, competed for buyers’ attention by blasting music throughout the day—everything from 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. to 1990s dance hits.

While the bustle and blazing sun caused some festival goers to feel nauseous—volunteers in a first-aid tent were treating several patients for heat exhaustion in the afternoon—most embraced the consumer chaos.

At a stall selling Japanese-made diapers, two men dressed in giant marshmallow-like costumes danced around, apparently unsure of what song they were meant to be moving to. When the marshmallow men removed the heads of their costumes, several children fled in tears, causing the rest of the onlookers to erupt in laughter.

Bou Sitha, 32, who was buying shampoo and other toiletries, said the festival’s tragic recent past was not enough to keep her away.

“I don’t mean I have forgotten [the stampede], I still remember it.” Ms. Sitha said. “[But] it’s now safe for me to walk without fear…. I enjoy buying the products and walking around.”

(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)

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