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Thursday, 01 November 2007

Submerged in the Bonn Om Teuk Water Festival of Phnom Penh - Page 2

Written by Elizabeth Gartley
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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.

crowdMost of the people pouring into Phnom Penh for the water festival are country folks—the same people I’d seen with their cattle-drawn wooden carts while coming up the river. Many of them have never before seen a two-story building, let alone a six-story waterfront hotel. Being something of a country bumpkin myself, the sea of people outside the safety of my hotel intimidated me. I wasn’t actually afraid of being attacked, but rather fearful of pick-pockets or bag snatchers, or of becoming caught in a human rip-tide, unable to find my way back to my hotel.

Eventually, though I managed to force myself out into the crowded chaos. And when I did, I discovered that the crowd wasn’t at all threatening. Quite the opposite, in fact; the atmosphere felt surprisingly familiar. I’ve been to more than a few state and county fairs in my lifetime, and the Bonn Om Teuk had a similar ambience—just multiplied by a few million. Instead of noisy tractor-pulls, there were reserved boat races. Instead of vendors selling greasy hot dogs and fried dough, they sold spicy noodle bowls and fresh barbecued chicken, squid, or fertilized eggs on a stick. I do think the inflatable plastic toys were the same ones we see in American fairs. I still regret not buying the camouflage bunny rabbit with fangs and red eyes.

The people were familiar, too—rural families with young children, giggly pre-teen girlfriends and sisters strung together in the massive crowd by holding hands, and young guys trying to look their absolute coolest for all the girls. And once I started mixing with the crowd, telling the country folk from the city folk became easy: the regular Phnom Penh-ers paid me no mind, but, to the country people, the sight of a sunburned, freckled, blond and blue-eyed five-foot-seven Anglo-American girl was an eye-catcher, even amusing.

As I meandered along the main road, easily floating along in the crowd, I noticed a plucky Cambodian girl of about seven or eight. She carried a basket slung over her shoulder full of books and postcards, which she peddled to the handful of tourists and other passersbys. I am a sucker for cheap books, exotic postcards, and spunky children, and she immediately caught my attention. But I wasn’t quite ready to break away from the flow yet, so I kept wandering on towards the Royal Palace.

The foot traffic bottle-necked across from the Royal Palace on the opposite side of the large public square. Here DJs played loud Asian pop music and shouted in excited feedback-distorted Khmer to the crowd. The festival organizers also kept their Bonn Om Teuk floats here. This being a water festival, they literally floated on the river, recreating various Khmer architectural designs with Khmer script. Hardly noticeable during the day, the little gold lights with touches of green and red lit up come sundown.float

After returning to my hotel briefly for a shower, I ventured out again with the vague goal of finding the little bookseller. By this time though, the heat was becoming something of a problem for me. It was November, the beginning of winter, but still the heat and humidity were oppressive. I was convinced the locals were mocking me – every time the temperature dipped below 85, they put on their sweaters.

(Page 2 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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