Last week Phnom Penh hosted the first Water Festival boat races since 2010 with customary gusto, fireworks, and gambling to celebrate the end of the rainy season and the reversal of the Tonlé Sap river. Crowds down on Riverside were thinner than expected, not a patch on the throngs of old, to hear those who were there tell it. Many street vendors were disappointed by the low turnout, having invested in refreshments and trinkets to sell to what they hoped would be a million strong crowd. Most attribute this to fears of another incident such as brought tragedy to the 2010 races, when overcrowding and panic caused a stampede on the bridge to Koh Pich Island, resulting in the deaths of some 347 people, and injuring another 755.
Never-the-less, attendees and competitors were enthusiastic as rowing teams faced off, representing their towns and villages racing 245 colourfully decorated traditional boats. Money changed hands quickly as spectators enjoyed another of Cambodias favorite passtimes. After three days of races, Srey Sos Kean Chrey Baromey Techo from Kompong Cham province took top honours, with a cumulative time of 27 minutes and 10 seconds, beating out Chan Somsen Mongkul, from Takeo province, by just 4 seconds!
The event was not without its dramas, with at least one collision during a race between the Sa Em Sen Chey Baromey Svay Chrum and the Komheng Kumar Moha Hang, capsizing the latter. The sunken crew were ferried to shore by Navy boats, where they retaliated with rocks, bottles and jeers when their new arch-nemesis paddled by on their way back upstream!
Most of our volunteers took advantage of the holiday to get out of the city to explore Cambodias spotless islands off Sihanoukville. As the rainy season (hopefully) comes to a close, the weather is all sunshine, and they caught a great weekend to be there; swimming, snorkling, fishing, and lazing about on postcard perfect beaches of south Cambodia.
Their trip coincided with the Full Moon, celebrated thoughout the provinces with the Sampeah Preah Khae ceremony to salute the moon for a good harvest for the following year, then back to the pagoda for Ak Ambok, a popular dish during water festival: rice fried in the husk, pounded with a giant hassle to remove the husks, and mixed with coconut and banana.
(On the islands, of course, the full moon is celebrated in the manner of all full moons on islands full of backpackers.)
Finally, Sunday 9th of November saw the 61st anniversary of Cambodian Independence. King Norodom Sihamoni laid a wreath at the Independence Monument, and lit the Victory Torch, a flame which will burn for three days to celebrate the end of the 90 year French rule in Cambodia on November 9th 1953. Independence was won by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, a statue of whom stands close by.
With so many holidays and festivals this semester, the volunteers of semester 34 have certainly been making the best of their time here. From the CRDT project in Mondokiri, to Koh Kong and the Cardamom Mountains; From Preah Vihear Temple all the way down to Kep and Kampot, they’ve taken to Cambodia with admirable curiosity and enthusiasm. Now with just 3 weeks left, its full steam ahead until the end of the semester!