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Record-Breaking Water Festival Underway

Cambodians inundated the capital this week to partake in the annual Water Festival, a celebration of a topographic occurrence that causes the Tonle Sap River to change its course.

The annual shift is typically marked in November with boat races, an illuminated night regatta, concerts, galas and other events. Phnom Penh authorities said the number of visitors this year set a record. During the festival, Cambodians give thanks to the water, especially fishermen and farmers, and commemorate the period of Angkorian naval power, festival organizers said.

"This year, we're all happy," Tourism Minister Thong Khon said. "The size of the boats is thrilling. Talking about the local tourist, it's about more than 1 million on this occasion. There is an increase of 20 percent in international tourist flow to the country to welcome the festival, thanks to our timely publicity through the Internet."

The Water Festival marks in part the end of the rainy season, when the upper Tonle Sap Lake drains southeast into the Mekong. As the lake loses water during the ensuing dry season, the river will revert to its northwesterly flow.

Part of the celebration includes three days of continuous boat races. This year saw 432 boats entered.

"It's very interesting to see so many boats and so many people, and the people are very friendly," said David Keller, a Swiss resident who has worked in Cambodia for almost a year and witnessed the event for the first time.

Along the riverfront, from the Japanese Friendship Bridge to the Royal Palace, a mass of whistling, cheering Cambodians and tourists greeted the racers.

"Each boat consists of either more than 70 people, 60 people, 50 people or 40 people," said a 76-year-old racer from Kampong Cham province. "We have both sitting and standing paddle-boats."