Monday, November 26, 2007

Festival update

I spent Saturday morning in the office and broke-off at lunchtime for a siesta and then out to the riverfront area with my good friend Sophoin to get some of the flavour of the second day of the Bon Om Tuk water festival and the continuing heats of the dragon boat racing. This was the first time I’d seen the crews in live race action and both sides of the river were crowded with spectators. It was fun to see different sections of the crowd burst into life as they recognised their boat from their particular village or province, as the crews gave it their all in the race from the Japanese bridge down to the finishing line in front of the Royal Palace. The crowd along the riverfront in front of FCC was about five deep, so getting a good spot to watch and take photos would’ve required an early start, so we merely peered over someone’s shoulder for half an hour as the heats came thick and fast, with at least two races almost coming to a premature watery end when the two boats were within inches of crashing into each other.
The crowds were heavy and in good spirits and those not content to watch the races, wandered slowly along Sisowath Quay, haggling with the food and trinket sellers or parked their bums on the grass in front of the National Museum and other stage areas near the riverside. There was a large police presence and with most of the traffic banned from the riverfront, the whole day took on a carnival atmosphere as the Quay and all roads leading to it were thick with family or village groups.
After a refreshing drink at one of the riverfront bars, it was back home for a quick shower and then out to Tuol Kauk by tuk-tuk to rendezvous with Davy, Seng Hour and their son David. The owners of the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse in Siem Reap, they were in Phnom Penh for a few days to attend a couple of weddings and Davy had called me earlier in the day to invite me to a house party with his friends in Pochentong. I asked Sophoin to come along, despite still being in recovery with her injured leg, and we had a great time. The food was excellent and plentiful, the drink flowed non-stop and the fifty or so people at the party were in high spirits. Sophoin, ever the trooper, did her best with the dancing as we went through the whole repertoire including saravan, cha cha cha, madizone and more. Most of the party-goers were in their fifties but they obviously enjoyed their dancing and Sophoin overheard that most of them belong to a dance club, and it showed, they were very accomplished. I got home in time to watch Bolton beat Man United on the tv, so all in all, a successful day!
Sunday was a lazy day and with the sun particularly hot, so I didn’t really venture out til it got a lot cooler in late afternoon. Sophoin popped round and we decided to take a look at what was going on around the Independence Monument and the new park near the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument. The roads near my house are usually quiet, but not today. In fact Sihanouk Boulevard was at a standstill with all motorized traffic bumper-to-bumper, so walking was the only option and that was an ordeal as we pushed and barged our way through the car park that this main highway through Phnom Penh had become. The police had lost all semblance of control, their whistles having absolutely no effect on the traffic and it was simply chaos as crowds streamed towards the river area. It took over an hour to fight, literally, our way to Independence, which would normally take me about fifteen minutes on foot. The roads, pavement and park areas were swamped with people, either sitting on mats and eating or aimlessly wandering around. Even Independence, normally off-limits to the public, was under a blanket of people.
We visited a couple of music stages but couldn’t really get very close as the crowds were huge though the singing and dancing on offer was pretty poor, so I don’t think we missed much. Sophoin gave me the low-down on the names of the singers and what the songs meant but it didn't rock my boat. I know the population of Cambodia has a high proportion of under-25 year olds and it seems all of them were in the city at once. It’s also one of the few opportunities where teenage girls can mix openly with young men and everyone seemed to be grabbing that chance with both hands. After a few hours we’d had enough and walked back to have dinner at the Garden Center Café 2, just around the corner from my apartment. The water festival had certainly been an eye-opening experience, specifically for the crowds that it attracts to Phnom Penh. I think I can see why long-stay expats make a point of leaving town for these few days, certainly if people-watching isn’t one of your hobbies.

Two dragon boats battle it out mid-stream at the half-way marker

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