The hint of a city – plaster white buildings and golden Khmer steeples – finally emerged from the green of the jungle and dirty brown river. After hours of traveling up the Mekong, the small clunky motorboat began its approach into Phnom Penh, the driver taking a back door approach into the city as to avoid the racers. It was the final day of Bonn Om Teuk, the water festival, one of the most important national holidays in Cambodia.
I had left Chau Doc, Vietnam that morning and try as I might, during the lengthy boat ride I could not find a better soundtrack than classic Creedence. I had downloaded traditional Khmer music onto my iPod, but as I lazily watched the scenery quickly passing by on the river, the decadent and regal nature of Khmer song and dance didn’t feel appropriate. While the boat darted by, the locals worked their rice fields and led their cattle-drawn wooden carts, and the children enjoyed an afternoon splash in the muddy river. “Green River” and “Run Through the Jungle” seemed to jive far better..
During the three days of Bonn Om Teuk, the generally sleepy city of Phnom Penh is packed to full capacity; the normal population of about two million nearly doubles as those from surrounding areas travel into the city to celebrate the end of their heavy work season. Aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, grandparents, great uncles, aunts twice removed, friends, friends of friends – everyone who knows anyone in Phnom Penh, and even most of those that don’t – are there for the weekend. I, of course, fell into that last category. Purely by luck, I arrived in Phnom Penh on the final day of the water festival. I’d never been to Asia and knew little about the Angkor temples, and even less about the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge. But my timing was perfect – like arriving, by chance, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras or New York during the Thanksgiving Day Parade – only better.
Although the water festival celebrates the harvest, nearly everyone in Cambodia has these three days off from work. Even most of the restaurants and shops are closed. It occurs to me that after surviving the genocide and cultural atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia – and especially Phnom Penh – will accept any excuse to laugh, smile, and have a good time.
For Cambodians, the main attraction of the festival – apart from the simple pleasure of getting away from home and visiting the city – are the boat races, although this isn’t entirely evident from the look of the crowds. People do watch, but with an air of casual nonchalance. From what I could gather, though, a lot of money does exchange hands during the races. I took great pleasure in noticing that an illustration of the boat races actually appears on the national currency, on the 10,000 riel bank note.
The racers train for months for this competition only to become a backdrop against which onlookers can catch up with relatives, enjoy a bite to eat, or otherwise lose themselves in the festival. I’m not even sure that there is a prize for the winners—they’re lucky to even hear a clap or a cheer.