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.


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.

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