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Water Festival Opens, Without Traditional Boat Races


A ferry carrying passengers and cars in the Tonle Sap river on the first day of the annual Water Festival. The Cambodian government cancels boat racing again this year, claiming the rivers are “too shallow.” (Photo: Aun Chhengpor/VOA)

A ferry carrying passengers and cars in the Tonle Sap river on the first day of the annual Water Festival. The Cambodian government cancels boat racing again this year, claiming the rivers are “too shallow.” (Photo: Aun Chhengpor/VOA)

The Water Festival is generally held in November, a tributary of the Mekong River, changes course, due to monsoon rains that fill up its source lake in the Cambodian interior.

Phnom Penh’s traditional Water Festival kicked off this week, but authorities have canceled its premier event, longboat racing. That has left many visitors to the city disappointed and wondering what will become of the tradition.

The Water Festival is generally held in November, when the water of the Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong River, changes course, due to monsoon rains that fill up its source lake in the Cambodian interior. It is also a celebration of an ancient naval victory. It is generally the city’s most popular event, drawing huge crowds. Many who came this year, though, say they are disappointed.

“I feel strange, because boat racing was organized every year,” said Kim Saing, a garment worker from Kampong Cham province, who came to the city to celebrate the festival. “If it’s not organized, it will gradually disappear. This tradition was left by our ancestors.”

Typically, the festival can bring millions of people to the capital, and that means a lot of annual business for vendors.

Chim Mong Huot, a vendor on Koh Pich island, a business and residential hub in Phnom Penh, said he was frustrated with the lack of business, nearly half of which generally comes from the Water Festival. “I feel disappointed, but the government may have an internal problem,” he said. “I don’t know about the issues faced by the government.”

The Water Festival was suspended in 2011, a year after a deadly bridge stampede that killed more than 350 people. It was canceled in 2012, as well, following the death of former King Norodom Sihanouk, and again in 2013, following turbulent national elections. It was held in 2014, following a political deal between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition. This year, it is unclear why the boat races were canceled, but the two political sides have seen increased tension in recent months.

Kouch Chamroeun, governor of Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, told VOA Khmer that the boat races were not canceled for fear of demonstrations, but because of low water levels in the river. Phnom Penh is used to demonstrations, he said, and people have a right to do it. “I don’t believe that they have the ill intention of taking this festival to demonstrate,” he said. “I don’t believe they are ignorant like that.”

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