Phnom Penh’s traditional Water Festival (Nov.21 to 23) was officially opened by King Nordom Sihamoni, and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Neigh on 300 boats, propelled by 19,000 oarsmen, are expected to race on the Tonlé Sap River in front of the Royal Palace.
The races are held when the river reverses its course and flows into the Tonlé Sap Lake. They were originally naval exercises under King Jayavarman VII (12th century).
To guarantee the safety of participants and spectators, 12,000 security personnel are deployed in Phnom Penh – but all individuals must also exercise a high level of security awareness for themselves.
The oarsmen arrive by bus, car, bike or truck, and most of them stay in town for the three-day festival to support their boat’s team. For many it is a rare occasion to visit the capital.
Sok Nang, a rower from Kampong Thom province, said, “I only come to Phnom Penh during Water Festival. I see lots of changes in the city – the tall buildings and the super markets.”
A rower from Kampot, Van Thorn, said that has come to compete in the race and hopes for a good outcome for his home team. “We will try our best to win, but I won’t be upset if we lose … It’s our traditional ceremony, so we all celebrate together.”
Enjoying the spectacle with her friends is Prak Chankanha, from Takmao city in Kandal province. “The weather is a bit hot, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s not very often that we can gather and cheer for the boats. I came here on the first day because I think there are few visitors, so it is easy for me to go around and buy from the vendors.”
The 2018 Water Festival is the third successive year it is held.
After the tragic events on the last day of the festival in 2010, it was cancelled for the following three years. The fest was revived in 2014, but with fewer spectators than in previous years, and in 2015 the government pulled the plug due to the river’s low water level.
Photo credit: KT/Fabien Mouret