Sunday, November 9, 2014

Water Festival - 2014


Trepidation preceded this year's Water Festival (Bonn Om Teuk) in Phnom Penh.

The Water Festival is ordinarily an annual event in Cambodia and one of the most important holidays of the year along with Khmer New Year and Prachum Benh. The exact dates set by the lunar calendar, the Water Festival is held at the end of the monsoon season to celebrate the reversing to the current of the Tonle Sap River. Central to the festival are long-boat races on the river as well as a fair amount of partying around town. In 2010 tragedy befell the Water Festival in Phnom Penh when over 350 mostly young people were killed in a stampede on a narrow bridge during the after party - the Koh Pich or Diamond Bridge disaster.

Subsequent Water Festivals (2011, 2012 and 2013) were cancelled for a variety of stated reasons (i.e. flooding, death of Sihanouk), but the cancellations were unprecedented and each time it called the 2010 disaster back to the public mind. Some questioned whether the Water Festival would ever be held again. This year, just two month before the usual dates for the event, the government announced that there would be a Water Festival in 2014 (November 5, 6, 7) and that security would be improved to prevent a reoccurrence of the 2010 disaster.

Most welcomed the news, but again, the 2010 disaster and safety concerns came straight to mind for many, and that fear grew as the event pulled closer. Dark talk and rumors swirled, "don't go to Aeon Mall on Wednesday, maybe another Koh Pich... beware of the Palace area during the fireworks... too many people at the riverfront will cause another Koh Pich... gangs of pickpockets are coming to Phnom Penh... etc" Friends advised one another against going to the festival. Peaking people's fears, Coronation Day the week before was marred when a fireworks accident on the riverfront killed a bystander. A week before officials predicted crowds of as many as 1-2 million at the Water Festival, but others suggested public fears may pare the crowd to as little as 70,000.

Very thin crowds greeted the first day of Water Festival 2014. Midday, thousands of spectators lined the river's edge but the nearby streets remained almost empty and the atmosphere was comparatively subdued. I've seen near a dozen Water Festivals in Phnom Penh, and to my memory, that was the lightest crowd I've ever experienced.

Security was extremely heavy. Almost uncomfortably so. The authorities not only increased security presence but put on a show of it. Police of several sorts were posted in numbers throughout. Very heavily armed special units dotted corners and marched up and down the riverfront. Top brass and bristling entourage roamed the riverfront inspecting security. Given that people's concerns revolved primarily around proper crowd control, I have to wonder what if anything the presence of dozens of machine gun toting cops did to allay those fears.

On the positive side, initial reports and observations would indicate that the police did their jobs more efficiently and with less corruption than previous festivals. I witnessed incidents of police refusing street entry to 'lok thoms' (Mr. Bigs) and their cars because they didn't have a proper pass. Some vendors I spoke with also report less harassment by police this year. The government might have gone overboard with the show of force, but it also seems that security was in fact better.

Day 2 crowds grew a bit in both number and spirit. Attendance was still way down from past festivals, but up from the previous day. There were more people on the street midday and significantly more out after dark. Friday, the third and last day saw the trend continue. The enthusiasm of the crowd was up several notches - lots of cheering, more revelry and excitement. There were more people on the riverfront streets midday, maybe as much as twice as many as the first day, and even more people on the streets after dark, shoulder to shoulder in some places. Reflecting this trend, one street vendor selling canned drinks reported to me that on the first day of the festival she made only $28 in profit, the second day $51 and the last day over $150. (Though, overall, the vendors did much worse than previous festivals.)

This year's Water Festival ended last Friday evening without significant incident. The government reports less than 100,000 attended the first two days, but I haven't seen the number for the whole event yet. The Cambodia Daily reports that, based on total race times, the Srey Sos Kean Chrey Baromey Techo from Kompong Cham province won the races, the Chan Somsen Mongkul from Takeo province took second, and the Kiri Vong Sok Sen Chey, sponsored by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, took third place.


Watching the races from the Phnom Penh riverside.

Long-boat with the new Sokha Hotel in background.








View of the riverfront (Sisowath Quay) from the rooftop of the Amanjaya Hotel at Street 154, looking toward the Palace area, Friday, mid-afternoon.


Crash!


Phnom Penh riverfront park, first day.

Setting the pace.

Boat crew after party, collecting donations from the crowd.


Light Boat Parade floats await.

Royal Palace.

Float in Light Boat Parade along riverfront.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The not so magical flying cow

Years back, on a bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville – with the long defunct DH Cambodia – I saw flying cow.

On National Route 4, we were somewhere south of Pich Nil but hadn't yet reached the Koh Kong turnoff. I was sitting toward the back, half dozing, when the bus suddenly lurched, braking hard, very hard, tossing me forward. The bus began fishtailing this way and that, tires squealing, metal straining, the driver was losing control. He released the brake. I fell back into my seat. The path straightened and everything went silent, if only briefly. There was a huge explosive crashing noise, but the bus glided on, barely impeded. I turned to my window just in time to see a cow flying gently past, a dirty white Brahma, only inches away, about 2 meters off the ground, front legs and head pointed forward, superman style, gently rolling left as if executing a banking turn. She looked rather majestic in what appeared to be, for that moment, controlled flight. The bus braked hard again, finally coming to a stop.

I looked forward. The windshield was smashed. The driver opened the door and jumped out, running to collect bits of the bus that had broken off in the impact. A cow lay motionless in the field next to the bus. Two hundred meters away, a saronged old woman was running across the field toward the bus, screaming something and waving her arms. The driver yelled for his partner in the bus to help him gather the bus parts quickly. They hurriedly tossed pieces of panels, bumper and headlamp in through the door. The old woman got closer. The driver scrambled back on the bus and fired it up. He fought to close the door but it wouldn't shut for the damage. He threw it into gear and pulled away, the old woman trailing near the still open door screaming, the bus making equally unpleasant grinding and screeching noises from the front. 

He drove another 5km or so, the passengers in muttering semi-silence, then stopped, now safe from the cow owner. The driver and assistant got out to inspect the damage. They tried reassembling the front end, without success. The driver decided to run away at that point, but the assistant caught him and brought him back. On arrival in Sihanoukville, I saw the driver explaining to the company manager at the station, pleading really. I hopped on a motodup to my hotel, and as I looked back I could see the manager beating the driver over the head with a plastic chair at the side of the street, him now on the ground cowering, motodups and small children pointing, giggling and laughing at the sight.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bonn Om Tuk - Water Festival


Cambodia's annual Water Festival (Bonn Om Tuk) is coming up next week - November 5, 6, and 7. The Water Festival celebrates the reversing current of the Tonle Sap River, which, in a unique hydrological phenomenon, changes direction twice a year. This year the current actually reversed about a month ago, now flowing southeast toward the ocean. In Phnom Penh long-boat races are held on the Tonle Sap, colorful dug-out row boats competing for prizes and honors. Fireworks and a water-borne parade of lighted barges cap events in the early evenings.

This will be the first Water Festival held in Phnom Penh since 2010 which ended in the Koh Pich bridge disaster. After the 2010 disaster the festivals in 2011, 12 and 13 were cancelled for various reasons, some less genuine than others. This year the Water Festival returns. Workers are busy sprucing up the river front, boats and teams are arriving from the countryside, the light boat barges are being assembled. The festival has traditionally drawn huge crowds from the countryside, but people are still a bit jittery about the 2010 disaster and it's been 3 years without a festival, making attendance is a bit more difficult to predict this year. Adding to safety fears, during the evening fireworks display on Coronation Day last week, a bystander was killed by a malfunctioning firework shell. Ordinarily more than one million could be expected to attend the Water Festival.

The following are a few snapshots from Water Festivals in Phnom Penh in 2004, 2005 and 2007.

Riverfront crowd 2004

2005 - note the small buildings and earthen banks on the far side of the river before the development of the last few years. 




Riverfront crowd 2005 





King Sihamoni - 2005

Decorated barge in the Light Boat Parade on the river 
(for scale, note the people standing along the front.)


Friday, December 13, 2013

Sihanoukville Railway Station


The Sihanoukville Railway Station was designed and built by Georges Kondracki and a German engineer in the late 1960s. It was the last of three major train stations built as part the construction of the Phnom Penh - Sihanoukville rail link constructed between 1960 and 1969. The Sihanoukville Railway Station was scheduled to be completed in 1967 but was not completed and inaugurated until 1969.









Wednesday, October 23, 2013

CNRP Protest March: Day 1


The CNRP began another round of demonstrations today, October 23, promising three days of protests based out of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Though there have been marches connected to CNRP demonstrations before, this is the first time that it is integral to the protest. The CNRP has promised to march to the UN office and several embassies (the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accord) in order to deliver a petition demanding an independent investigation into significant irregularities and alleged fraud in the 2013 National Assembly elections. The CNRP notification of their intention to march was initially rejected by city hall, raising concerns that an attempt to march might be met with force from the police. But a deal was struck and city hall agreed to a plan for a peaceful march following a specific route with a limited number of participants.

Today, protestors gathered at Freedom Park throughout the morning. Though I was not at Freedom Park this morning, reliable commentators on the scene put the number of protestors at 10,000-20,000 midday before the march, perhaps more later in the day after the march.

Today's march was to the UN Human Rights office and came off peacefully, both sides - police and protestors - behaving responsibly. It followed the agreed upon route though far exceeded the participation cap requested by city hall. The marchers left Freedom Park early afternoon and proceeded up Street 51, across town to Boueng Keng Kang 1 and the UN office. Street barricades were minimal and police presence along the route was comparatively light, except at Sihanouk/Suramarith Boulevard crossing where, in a show of force, hundreds of geared up riot police, soldiers and water cannons stood blocking the road 50 meters to one side of the protest route, guarding the way to the Prime Minister's house and the Independence Monument. The protestors passed without incident and continued into Boeung Keng Kang 1. After the petition was delivered to the UN office, protestors reversed course, making their way back up Street 51 to Freedom Park.

The only point of tension I noticed was at the crossing of Sihanouk Blvd where riot police and marchers came so close. The police stood at the ready, shields in hand with hundreds more police and soldiers in backup. Passing protestors slowed and gawked and sometimes jeered the police lines but CNRP organizers endeavored to keep people moving and CNRP peacekeepers made another impressive display of peaceful protest technique, linking arms to keep people back away from the barricades and police. As Sam Rainsy passed during the return march, he made an abrupt turn to the barricades and stopped, people cheered, several protestors followed, prompting police to move that way as well, drawing jeers from the crowd. He tarried only briefly before moving on, in a 'made you flinch' moment, defusing tension as quickly as he had raised it.

Sam Rainsy began and ended the day on one of his central political themes - the Vietnamese. When he first spoke at Freedom Park before the march he told the crowd that the Vietnamese must leave Cambodia. After the march, back at Freedom Park he ended the day saying that the only support for the CPP was from "ghost voters and Vietnamese."

The following video is of part of the protest march as it passed on Street 51 at about 4:15PM, a bit past the half-way point on its way to the UN Human Rights office.


More information and photos:
Ruom: CNRP starts first day of protests
John Vink: The Afternoon Of Day One…
Omar Havana: First of Three Days of Mass Demonstrations
The Cambodia Daily: Thousands Join Opposition Rally in Phnom Penh
George Steptoe: Day One of Protest: CNRP Slips into Something Comfortable

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Monks, barricades, police and flowers

At the barrier.

Mid-afternoon today word spread that the police had once again placed barricades in the roads surrounding the Royal Palace area and that police presence had increased significantly. Apparently a group of monks were in route to the Palace to pray and ask the King to delay the opening session of the National Assembly scheduled for next week. Their passage to the Palace blocked, a little more than 100 monks stopped at the barricades, sat in the street (Sisowath Quay near the Chaktomuk Theater) and began to meditate, pray and chant. Several police manned the barricades while others directed traffic away. Eventually a contingent of riot police arrived in full gear, initially lining up at barrier facing the monks. The monks responded by chanting and praying, then standing and speaking calmly to the police about their position, taking photos of themselves and the police with their various iDevices and finally offering lotus flowers, some of which were accepted, if only briefly. The police seemed a bit disarmed by the display, remaining relatively relaxed and eventually just sat to the sides, smoking cigarettes and monitoring the situation. The monks dispersed after 45 minutes or so, leaving a few protestors, some of whom had some harsh words for the police, but they too left in fairly short order. A few photos...

Monks sit in the center of Sisowath Quay Blvd. near Chaktomuk Theater, meditating and chanting.

Riot police arrive

This monk made an clearly heartfelt statement to the police.

Flowers offered, a few of which were accepted, if only briefly before being tossed aside.

Offering flowers.

OK, now what?

Camera shy.