PHNOM PENH —
Racing boats once again plied the Chaktomuk river in Phnom Penh over the weekend as Cambodia celebrated water festival.
The festivities were suspended following a deadly stampede in 2010 that killed more than 350 people, resuming in 2014 before being suspended in 2015 ostensibly due to low rainfall and amid political tensions.
FILE - Cambodians walk through piles of shoes on a newly-built bridge where the worst stampede in their country's modern history happened, killing at least 345 people on Monday, November 22, 2010.
Cambodians taking part in this year’s event were in high spirits, though turnout was noticeably lower than pre-2010 levels, leading to concern that the tradition could die out.
“I feel happy to see the festival because it’s the tradition of our Khmer people since ancient times. When the government suspended the festivities for two to three times, I feel that I am not happy,” Yim Pisal, 24, told VOA Khmer.
More than 250 boats and 17,000 racers took part in the festival this year. On Saturday, King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen were joined by high-ranking officials and foreign diplomats at the festivities, followed by a fireworks display on Sunday night.
Local tourists are walking by the riverside on the first day of water festival 2016. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)
Kong Vandy, 30, who turned up for the first day of the festival, said: “It seems quiet compared with before the stampede.”
Many blamed the scale of the tragedy, which claimed hundreds of lives, on poor government planning, a claim denied by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration.
The boats lie for racing during the first day of annual Water Festival in the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh on Sunday, November 13, 2016. (Leng Len/VOA Khmer)
While festival-goers said they still thought often of the stampede, they said the goernment should do all it can to ensure the tradition continues.
“If we don’t organize it, it will fade away,” said Pisal.
Yun Srey Oun, 35, who attended the festival at the weekend, agreed.
“I always come to be entertained. I want the government to organize the festival every year. I don’t know what to say if there is no festival,” he said.
Chhin Ketana, secretary general of the National and International Ceremonies Organizing Committee, could not be reached.