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17.11.2010 - 22.11.2010 32 °C
The Water Festival is the most important event of the year in Cambodia. It is a 3-day celebration of a unique biannual occurrence - the turning of the river's flow. This quirky characteristic truly makes the Tonle Sap lake/river system the lifeblood of the country. Teams from all over arrive in Phnom Penh to compete in the dragon boat races; families from provinces near and far come to the capital to try their luck at earning a little extra income with either an official stall or something much less formal set up on the side of the street; and above all, everyone is just happy to be invited to the biggest party of the year.
So how is it that I could plan to spend 5 days in Phnom Penh and NOT be aware that my visit would coincide with the festival??
On the Thursday, I was doing an orientation tour of Phnom Penh. My 3 clues that the Water Festival was imminent were: 1) dragon boat training on the river, 2) marquees being erected all along the quayside and 3) by mid-afternoon the traffic had slowed to a crawl. The traffic congestion was useful as it allowed me to see that it was being caused partly by the hundreds of tuk-tuks being used to transport all the paraphernalia for the street stalls. We sat at the traffic lights next to a tuk-tuk with two smiling girls literally hanging out the sides, because the cab and the roof were completely full with a cafe-worth of tables and chairs. Safety be damned.
By Friday night the public spaces were filling up noticeably and it was getting more difficult to move around. The normal population of Phnom Penh is 1.5M but during the festival it can swell to over 4M.
On Saturday morning there was no doubt that Phnom Penh was putting on her party dress and getting ready to go out. All of the streets near Sisowath Quay were closed to traffic - a sight to behold in itself - and throngs of people were pouring into the city.
Walking through the area I could hear Khmer Gaga blaring over loudspeakers, I could see exotic snacks like tarantulas and crickets being prepared for sale, and I could run into a lady selling paper hats as elaborate as anything you'd see in a Melbourne milliner's leading up to Spring Carnival. Later that night, when the half-hour of fireworks was over and wanting to walk back to my hotel by the most direct route, I found myself having to go in the opposite direction and kind of double-back, because I literally could not move through the crowd and couldn't even see any potential to do so, no matter how patient I was prepared to be.
Sunday was more of the same, including the impressive fireworks display - this time for 40 minutes! For such a poor country, they really know how to put on a good show.
I couldn't write about the Water Festival and not mention the tragedy that occurred as it was wrapping up on Monday night. I can only imagine what it must have been like, as I'd left for home that morning. Hopefully Cambodia can find a way to continue the celebrations in the future while honouring the memory of the lives lost, because god knows this is a country that deserves to have something to celebrate.