Despite the cancellation of this year’s boat races in Phnom Penh, Water Festival revelers at Wat Phnom on Wednesday afternoon were provided with entertainment courtesy of City Hall, as municipal governor Pa Socheatvong shook loose grains of rice from stalks with his bare feet before pounding the grains flat with a large mortar and pestle.
Mr. Socheatvong was at the park to tour the activities hosted by City Hall during this year’s three-day holiday, including a number of stations dedicated to the making of “ambok,” a traditional flattened rice snack.
The government canceled the festival’s beloved boat races earlier this month, citing low water levels on the Tonle Sap river and the need to reallocate resources to help farmers affected by the wet season’s meager rainfall.
“We don’t have the boat-racing program this year, but we have replaced it with other programs …like the ambok-making ceremony, Bassac opera performances and a lantern-floating ceremony in front of the Royal Palace,” said Chum Vuthy, director of the municipal department of culture and fine arts.
As Mr. Socheatvong showed off his own ambok-making skills to onlookers and television cameras, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche conceded that the absence of the races was having an effect on festivalgoers’ spirits.
“If we had the boat races, it would make us happier,” Mr. Dimanche said, estimating that about 2,000 people would take in the activities at Wat Phnom and that “no less than 50,000” had participated in events across the city on Tuesday, which included concerts and a fireworks display.
Previous Water Festivals have drawn crowds in the millions.
Chey Hom, 38, who lives in Kandal province and arrived in Phnom Penh by motorbike on Wednesday morning with his two daughters, said that while the activities planned by City Hall were somewhat entertaining, he missed the boats.
“I don’t feel so happy because I am afraid that boat racing will disappear forever. It should be organized every year because it is our tradition,” Mr. Hom said.
“The replacements can make me feel happy, too, but not fully, like when there was the boat racing,” he added. “I want to know how strong Khmer people are and which province finishes No. 1 in the boat race…. That’s why I always come to see the festival.”
Stationed in front of the Royal Palace during last night’s lantern ceremony, soft-drink seller Phal Sophorn, 23, said that while she did not miss the boat races, their absence was hurting her sales.
“This year, my sales are not so good because I have seen less people than the year before, when there was the boat race,” she said. “I still feel normal, but it is just difficult for me to sell any drinks.”