The most important festival in Phnom Penh is the Water festival. There are many festivals and festivities in Cambodia, with three big events spread out over several days. In April there is the Khmer New Year, in September there was Pchum Benh and around full moon in November there is the Water Festival. Both other festivals are celebrated with the family, in people’s home towns. Usually those are in the rural areas and not in Phnom Penh, so the city empties at these times. The Water festival is different, then people come into Phnom Penh because the large festivities take place here.
The Water festival takes place on and around the river opposite of the Royal Palace, in the area commonly known as the “Riverside”. That river is not the famous Mekong but the Tonlé Sap. In Phnom Penh the two arms of the Mekong meet the Tonlé Bassac river and the Tonlé Sap. Because of that, the Tonlé Sap is a special river. Its source is located in the lake close to Siem Reap (Angkor) and for the most part of the year the river streams towards sea. Before it reaches the sea, it meets the Mekong. During the rainy season, the water level of the Mekong rises until it’s above the normal level of the Tonlé Sap, so the direction of the Tonlé Sap turns around and the water flows into the lake. Around November the stream turns again and the river resumes its normal direction. The level of water in the lake and the river starts to fall, leaving very fertile ground behind.
The Water festival is an ancient festival, depicted already on the Angkor reliefs. One of the legends about it’s origin says that the Angkorian king Jayavarman VII had won an important naval battle. To celebrate his victory he organised boat races, and they have been held ever since. At the same time, the Water festival is a Buddhist festival at which one of the incarnations of Buddha is worshipped. Moreover, it is a thanksgiving to the gods of water and earth for the prosperity of the Cambodian people, related to the fertile ground the river leaves behind.
Core event of the Water festival are the boat races, with this year around 250 teams participating. The boats are very long and small. They are just wide enough for two rowers besides each other, but the longest boats contain up to eighty rowers. In these very long boats the rowers sit beside each other, in the shorter ones they stand. The boats race two by two, sometimes these are very close finishes, but at other times one boat is miles ahead of the other. All provinces and many cities and villages send teams. The teams start practising months before the actual race and they decorate their boats as beautiful as they can.
Of course all these teams need to be cheered at by the rest of the village. The expectation was that this year around a million people would come to visit Phnom Penh. Normally the city has around 2 million inhabitants, so a million more is quite a lot and the expectation was that it would become very busy. It didn’t happen this time, it was much quieter than expected and also much quieter than in the past. That’s a disappointment to all traders, but a relief to the authorities. The Water festival hadn’t been held in Phnom Penh since 2010, when a disaster happened in the crowds. At a small bridge, people in the crowd panicked. This started a stampede in which more than 350 people died. Officially, in the years after the Water festival was cancelled because of severe flooding and the death of the former king Sihanouk. The disaster will have had something to do with it and fear of disturbances around the 2013 elections exerted its influence as well. Finally, this year the Water festival was organised again.
Besides the boat races, in the evening there was a parade of illuminated boats, depicting several Cambodian ministries and government agencies, followed by fireworks. Usually the fireworks are lit from the land, but after a deadly accident with the same kind of fireworks last week, this time it was lit from the water. We had a great view on the fireworks from the special pavilion for foreign visitors. Living in Phnom Penh we’re not exactly visitor, but the colour of our skin qualified us for entrance. I don’t really like that kind of special treatment, but must admit that it did come in handy. A spot in the shade, where we could sit a bit quieter than at the rest of the waterfront, where the radio comments could be translated (headphones available) and where free bottles of water were provided, everything organised by the Ministry of Tourism. Not precisely located on the finish line of the races, there of course was the VIP-pavilion where the ambassadors, the Prime Minister and allegedly the King watched the races, but next door to it. Of course the ordinary Cambodians spend their evening with a pic-nic on the grass before the Royal Palace.