Watery Festivities

November 10, 2014

Phnom Penh is situated where three major rivers meet, forming (if you squint a bit) a giant X on the map. Obviously, if you’re going to have a capital city, it makes sense to have access to fresh water and a great transport network (Only Mexico City, Riyadh and Tehran ignore this, I believe).


Of the rivers, the Mekong is the most famous, but the Tonle Sap is perhaps the most interesting. It flows out of Tonle Sap lake, the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. But twice a year, the river changes its direction of flow: from November to May, the river drains into the Mekong and thence to the sea, via Vietnam. But in the wet season, usually June to November, the Mekong instead drains northwards, up the Tonle Sap, into the lake.


The Cambodians, being a celebratory sort of people, mark the change of flow with a huge three-day festival, called, naturally enough, the Water Festival, which has just ended. It’s the first time I’ve seen it; in 2010 more than 350 people were crushed to death on a bridge in central Phnom Penh, so they cancelled it for a while (also the king died, and they had disputed elections in intervening years).

In the past, it has been hugely popular with the people of Cambodia: every major town sends a boat to compete in the dragonboat races, and the population of Phnom Penh was estimated to double with the influx of visitors, by about two million extra people. This year, the numbers were down quite markedly: a lot of people wouldn’t let their children come, because of the 2010 stampede. So rather than a terrible crush, crowds were manageable, and it was a happy and relaxed occasion.


Blossom and I managed to score up a rather magnificent flat on the riverside overlooking the races, and we drank beer in the shade and watched the 240 teams, often with 80 people on a boat, pounding up and down the Tonle Sap. It was colourful and faintly soporific, and a genuinely pleasant experience. Crowds milled around, vendors dodged police patrols to sell noodles and cakes and fruit, bands played and there were Ferris wheels and kickboxing displays and fireworks and everyone drank far too much and a good time was had by all.

But on the second morning, it was my turn to walk the awful dog, so I was up at dawn, being dragged around the riverside. And I was genuinely appalled to see the gangs of street cleaners collecting huge mounds of trash – the concept of recycling not having entirely caught on here yet – and pushing them straight into the river, to be carried off to the sea. It didn’t seem so much fun after that. [Sigh…] Oh, Cambodia…


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