We join a throng of hundreds of thousands of feet slowly moving along the river promenade and adjacent streets in Phnom Penh. It is the annual Boat Race Water Festival, the most celebrated public holiday in Cambodia, marking the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river. We are fortunate enough to be in the centre of the action on the final of three nights. The city is alive. Spectators stand shoulder to shoulder lining the banks of the river to get a glimpse of the human powered long boats cutting through the water.
The VIP stand opposite the finish line and across the square from the Royal Palace is elaborately decorated, bathed in light and there are bodyguards everywhere. Every square inch of any horizontal space is occupied by people with a friendly festive disposition. Food and drink sellers and their carts are constantly being urged along by police who are keen to keep the crowd moving. Other curious tourists sit safely on the third and fourth floor terraces peering out over the churning mass. The festival culminates with fireworks and a river parade with massive flotillas decorated with thousands of colourful lights moving from bank to bank down the river, finally stopping in front of the Royal Palace. We relish in the unexpected and unique cultural immersion experience.
To our delightful surprise, Phnom Penh is a culturally rich and tourist friendly city but, it is not overrun by tourists. Although there are clear foreign tourist areas with pubs, hostels and hotels, these are confined to a narrow strip along the river. A short walk deeper into the city will take you through authentic markets, along busy commercial streets and, if you, like us, walk from place to place, residential areas with hundreds of small home businesses. We fall in love with Khmer cuisine – a scrumptious combination of fresh Thai flavours and the full richness of Indian dishes – and the family have enough opportunities to identify their favourite as we sample the local fare everywhere we go.
Ornamental buildings and religious sites on every second corner reflect a proud heritage and make for a visually interesting street experience. We spend a few hours admiring the architecture and artistry of the Royal Palace and by chance wander through a Buddhist enclave filled with decorated temples and golden shrines. Later, a parents-only visit to the S21 Genocide Museum is a sobering reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge four decades ago. It is however good to see that the city is moving forward. There is a lot of new construction going on and after the huge festive event that we witnessed, the streets were swept, litter removed and pavements washed the very next morning.
(Media reports cited a number of four million people that attended the boat races in Phnom Penh this year. In 2010 a tragic stampede occurred at the very same promenade that we were, costing the lives of 350 people hence the police presence to control the movement of the crowds.)
– Jarik –
The Water Festival
I pulled on dad’s arm, “I want to see the fireworks.” Dad stood up, “Alright, let’s go.” We walked down the crowded streets towards the river. Soon after we arrived the fireworks stopped. A parade of big boats full of little lights came past and then pulled closer to the bank of the river. Dad lifted me up onto his shoulders, high above the crowd.
Everywhere I looked I could see boats full of lights, trees with fairy lights, little stalls with food and desert and loads of people. Dad and I could barely move! From my perch up high I could see how streams of people were moving slowly. It was an amazing scene. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
– Eulain –