Water Festival MemoriesAugust 13, 2011
On the Saturday afternoon of Water Festival a couple of years back, once it was cool enough to emerge into the late afternoon sun and well after the day’s competitive paddle up and down the city’s waterway had concluded, I’d penciled in a stroll from my place in Tonle Bassac to Tree Bar which nestled near Psar Chat just over two kilometers away.
It’s a bit of a hike, but the heaving Water Festival crowds made the journey by mechanized transport an impossibility as the streets would be clogged from my door all the way to my destination – or so I thought.
Indeed, I was in the thick of it from the moment I got to the Street 9, south of Sihanouk, which looked exactly like the platform of a Northern line underground station in London during rush hour and after twenty minutes of train cancellations.
Under the lowering 5.30pm sky, the park running through Sihanouk Boulevard was a sprawling sea of mats with thousands of Khmers almost stacked horizontally as if on palettes. Khmers from the provinces would no doubt have seen see more other fellow Khmers over two days here in Phnom Penh than they’d see in two decades in their villages.
In the midst of all this, there were numerous Khmers exercising their creative entrepreneurial skills and most astonishingly a begging dog – possibly Cambodia’s only canine beggar – perched on his haunches, blue plastic bucket of loi hanging beneath his jowls and looking about as non-unctuous as a begging dog can be. I tossed in 500 riel for the photo opportunity and walked on.
Ambling through the crowds and across the park, hands thrust firmly in my front pockets to deter pickpockets and cut-purses, I took a right onto St 19 and into a nation on the move, an army on the march: pedestrians and scooters, huge people carriers, inconsiderate oafs in 4x4s weaving around the pedestrians and the occasional cop with his Kalashnikov (the world’s most ubiquitous gun and favorite of Palestinian terrorists and Sudanese child soldiers alike) slung lazily over his shoulder.
I skirted my way past the palace turning right towards the river at St 154 before taking a left onto St 15 that would eventually take me to my destination on St 118.
Having expected at this point to run into a powerful whirlpool of people, the maelstrom never happened and the streets parallel to St 108 and running down to the river (including St 118) were becalmed without the usual and expected ungainly mass scuffle to get down the road.
Sitting down now with an ice cold beer, a couple of dusky kids came over to stare at the the barang, exhibiting that wide-eyed cheerfulness that provincial Khmer children have around foreigners. I watched much smaller groups of people than I’d expected to see – young provincial men in garish shirts and glittery baseball caps and the occasional neurotic, paranoid, hypochondriac large family all wearing earloop surgical-grade masks – presumably to ward off those potentially lethal strains of swine influenza we have in the big city.
The last of the daylight having gone, the floats began drifting down the river and one halted at the end of the street. Personally, I find the entire concept of watching massive illuminated Government ministry floats cruising down the river about as arousing as a a handjob from Sam Campbell.
Give me the humble candle-lit banana leaf boats of Loy Katong in Laos any day rather than the CPP encouraged bombast of Loy Pratip.
Later, the Cambodia Daily confirmed my hunch that numbers were well down and the reason for drastic fall in numbers is about as mysterious as a loaf of bread: we’re in the midst of an economic downturn and the rural poor are feeling it as much as everybody else. So that year saw fewer people – a million rather than two million -spending less time and money in the capital.
On a brighter note, the installation of 400 public toilets meant that the hicks from the sticks didn’t have to sacrifice their personal hygiene standards unduly although the final day’s parade was well and truly rained on by an outbreak of foul weather from the tail end of Typhoon Mirinae. I think I’ll go away for the Water Festival next year, possibly to Eden, maybe to Shangri-La, but more likely to Battambang.