This is big week in Phnom Penh, too big by magnitudes

Boat races and fireworks are highlights of the three-day Water Festival.  (Photo: The Cambodia Daily)

Boat races and fireworks are highlights of the three-day Water Festival. (Photo: The Cambodia Daily)

The peak of the rainy season is supposedly long past, but it seems that nobody told the monsoon master.

When there is a downpour here, the rain roars so loud that it wakes many of us, including me, from a deep sleep.  Time to close the windows to just a crack.

Although the season normally ends around now, my first such experience of it seems significantly out of sync with the usual situation.  Hours-long deluges and days of off-and-on rain over the last couple of weeks have proved to be the exception to what I understand to be the rule.

It pours down even as a three-day holiday approaches this week.  The aptly named water festival takes places during the first week of November, when the river called Tonle Sap reverses direction, a phenomenon new to me.

Sometimes the rain is so heavy that I cannot see beyond the solid sheet of grey outside my windows.  I rarely go anywhere without both rain poncho and umbrella, but I have become philosophical about how minor is the inconvenience of getting my t-shirts and shorts wet.  And now I pocket a small plastic bag for any small electronics that would die when soaked.

As for the streets, which flood to hubcap depth every time, especially intersections, vehicles never seem to get stranded.  Motos, cars and cyclists just somehow puddle through, but the speed of traffic markedly grinds down.

To residents of Phnom Penh, life goes on.  Newspaper stories tell me, however, that sometimes life ends in the outskirts and provinces.

One problem is that government-sanctioned land grabbing has enormously reduced the size and quantity of lakes that used to absorb some of the runoff.  Attempts to improve the sewer systems appear to have been so far in vain.

The photo below is one I snapped from the 10th floor of my building as the rain tapered off during this morning’s rush period.

What with all the rain today?

What is with all the rain today? Without rain, this street would be packed.

Regarding the photo at the top, this is the last of Cambodia’s big holiday weeks, the water festival, called Bon Om Touk in the Khmer language.  Being held for the first time since 2014, when there were 353 fatalities because of a stampede of onlookers, the event starting Wednesday features boat races, feasting and fireworks.

It surely will mean injuries and probably death.  One boatman in preliminaries fell into the water and was rescued in a semi-conscious state.  A man already has died in what a ministry official termed a fireworks “incident.”  Mind you, the holiday hasn’t even begun.

The authorities are predicting that 2 million Cambodians will travel here from the provinces, thereby doubling the city’s estimated population.  They have been arriving for several days.

I hope to see what it is all about, then to write about and photograph the spectacle, but I suspect that the density of the crowds will make futile my attempt to do so.

View of the Royal Palace during what probably was the deadly 2010 water festival.  (Photo: Travel+Leisure)

View of the Royal Palace likely during deadly 2010 water festival. (Photo: Travel+Leisure)

I hear that pickpockets thrive over the three days, and an expat friend of mine says he won’t leave his apartment with anything of value in his pocket.  This tuned-in observer of the country also tells me that so thick is the throng that short individuals often are carried along without their feet touching the pavement.

They are blocking motorized traffic in large sections of the city, and two of the boundaries are within two and four blocks of my apartment building.  That means piles of cars parked two and three deep in surrounding streets, never mind a stream of individuals as close together as salmon struggling upstream to spawn.

Something between 6,000 and 10,000 police officers and other security personnel are to be detailed from the outer boundaries of closed streets to the river, particularly around the Royal Palace, which looms approximately 100 yards from Tonle Sap.  Whether they are up to the challenges facing them is debatable.

Many expats flee the city, and I am keeping that option open with an increasingly pessimistic perception that I can avoid leaving to revisit Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.  Yet I would hate to miss my first chance to witness the festival.



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