One of the biggest holidays in this holiday laden country is the annual Water Festival. For a couple of reasons, this year’s festival in Phnom Penh has shifted down a few gears. First there was last year’s bridge tragedy, when 340 people died in a stampede on the Diamond Island Bridge. Then came this year’s floods, which destroyed most of Cambodia’s rice crops. In the wake of these occurrences, Prime Minister Hun Sen decided that this year’s festival in Phnom Penh would be toned down. The boat races that are the highlight of the festival were cancelled, as were many other events.
To give you an idea of how big Water Festival is, an estimated 1/3 of Cambodia’s population descends on Phnom Penh for the 3 day festival. I’ve gone twice, in 2006 and 2008 and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I looked for news of the goings on this year and it looks like a shadow of its former self.
Meanwhile, here in Sihanoukville, we decided to go down to Mithona Street for dinner tonight. Ekareach Street was so packed with traffic, getting there turned out to be a harrowing experience. Once we got there, the restaurant I wanted to go to, the one run by an Israeli who makes perfect falafels, was too crowded for my taste. We moved up the road and had Indian instead.
Afterwards, we decided to check out the fair at the old bus station, which is now a huge apartment complex and public space. It was packed to the rafters. It seems like the Water Festival has moved from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in 2011.
Sihanoukville really isn’t the best venue for the Water Festival. There’s a lot of water here, but it’s not the right water. Called Bon Om Tuk, this festival, held yearly at the time of the full moon in November (Buddhist calendar month Kadeuk) commemorates a weird natural phenomenon: the reversal of the current of the Tonle Sap at the end of the rainy season. During the rainy season, the Mekong swells, pouring its waters into the Tonle Sap. When the waters recede, the Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong. The festival also gives Khmers the opportunity to thank the Tonle Sap for its bounty.