Laying eyes on the king may have been the top highlight among the many joys of Bon Om Touk, Cambodia’s annual three-day Water Festival.
Apparently the deaths of 353 souls during a stampede in 2010 was the chief reason for the absence of shoulder-to-shoulder throngs. It also reduced the number of boats competing in races along the river, called Tonle Sap, in front of the Royal Palace. (The year 2014 was the last time the event was held because of the tragedy, excessive flooding, the death of the last king and political confrontations.)
Another possible explanation would be the many blocks of streets closed to vehicular traffic and the mandatory unloading of buses and other large passenger vehicles at great distances from the Riverside neighborhood. That area, which happens to be especially popular with expats, is where the festivities were concentrated.
In any case, predictions turned out to be wildly wrong about how many folks would journey to the capital from the provinces, 2 million of them, according to officials, as opposed to reportedly 100,000 the first day and subsequently growing.
Whatever the cause, I never expected to get close to anything worth seeing, so dire was the experience related of festivals past, when pickpockets teemed among the crowds and short individuals were carried along without their feet touching the ground. I expected to have to turn back at the first sign of impossible densities.
Instead, we went to the festival twice on Wednesday, each time on that first day finding unimpeded access to the riverbank, high above the waterway. There was plenty of room to see everything, no pushing, no hassling and no sense of a scintilla of danger.
Still, police with menacing expressions roamed the area. They were clad in black combat garb and carried machine guns masked with soft covers. Thankfully, those personnel had little to do except to consider how soon they could get into a cooling shower after enduring normally oppressive heat.
I took only little advantage of it, but it turns out that the Tourism Ministry had set up a free pavilion only for foreigners at the river’s edge not more than 100 yards from that of the VIP’s own temporary structure, where the king applauded the boats passing in review.
That’s not where I glimpsed him, however. I saw him as he waved through the open roof of his car as it approached the entrance of the Royal Palace, the lights of which stretch for at least a block in two directions along the walled perimeter of the grounds.
Having been a journalist, I’ve seen a number of presidents from a distance, shaken the hands of presidential candidates who ended up winning, observed a pope in New York City and watched the Queen of Soul belt out Somewhere over the Rainbow in Yankee Stadium. But it was far more exciting for this cynic to be no more than approximately 100 feet from actual royalty (however powerless) than to have viewed the others. What has happened to my jaded self?
There were booths with vendors of every stripe, an indefatigable dog trained (no doubt mercilessly) to beg for handouts by letting a pail dangle from its mouth, heartbreakingly young children scavenging recyclables and struggling with their burdens, music presented on two serious outdoor stages erected for the event, kickboxing matches in a portable ring on kind of a mall, and running commentary of the races audible on loudspeakers everywhere.
At night, illumination is the big thing. Huge incandescent displays are constructed for the Water Festival, some on land and some on boats that parade along the river in a manifestation of timeless pageantry going back to the mid-19th century. Generally tame fireworks that can’t compete with Fourth of July or New Year’s Day extravaganzas in other parts of the world nonetheless provided a delightful diversion, including on the second night, when I watched from my building’s rooftop.
All told, the festival proved to be a surprisingly felicitous combination of state fair and holiday celebration. It was filled with positive energy, high spirits and agreeably thinned crowds, leaving me with a feeling of hope for the future of a nation that has had more than its share of troubles.
I hope you enjoy the additional photos below.