Beautiful Water Festival in Phnom Penh Ended Up in a Terrible Tragedy

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The annual boat rolling festival, called ‘Water Festival’, held on a full moon day in November, was one of the major festivals in Cambodia. Millions of people from the provinces come to Phnom Penh to cheer for their province’s representative boat teams in the competitions. Many people make their once-in-a-year visit to the capital of the Kingdom. Among the festival goers, there are also many, who had never been to Phnom Penh before.

I was excited for the festival since I knew about it. I even requested my boyfriend, who planed to come and visit me, to arrive in time for the festival. In the Burmese tradition, we also celebrate “Tazaungtaing” festival on the same full moon day – we believe that it is the only time of the year all the stars of the universe lights up on the sky on that particular day. Traditionally, we eat a unique salad, ‘Mae-za-li’ bud salad, at the midnight of that full moon day with the belief – it becomes medicinal and it helps you keep health for the whole year.  Burma’s Tazaungting is one of traditional festivals with many outdoor activities and events.

I expected the same as in Phnom Penh. With friends, I expected that I could walk around the town and enjoy the traditional foods at road-side stalls at the festival bazaar. However, I was warned by my local friends – it would be too crowded on all the streets of Phnom Penh – especially on the streets leading to the riverside, which is the main area of the festival, would be too crowded even to walk.

And I was also told even not to carry phone or any valuable things about the risk of being pick-pocketed at the festival. To avoid the crowd, I decided to show my boyfriend around the town on the evening of the festival eve. I took him along the beautiful riverside of the delta of Tole Bassca, Mekong river, and two other rivers.

When we were out for the dinner with one of my friends, who just arrived from the U.S, on the first day of the three-day festival, the roads were already crowded. Our motorcycle was stuck in the crowd on one of the streets led to the festival – it took us about an hour to get out of the one-block distance of the street.

We avoided traveling on the crowded streets and the festival areas until the afternoon of the last day of the festival. I was afraid of that I might have missed to experience the beautiful boat rolling competition and went to the riverside since the early afternoon on the last day of the festival. We arrived there at 2:00 pm and both sides of the river-sides were crowded but the roads were not yet because the afternoon sun was still strong. We watched and cheered the boats for about an hour standing in the crowd on the river side. And after walking along the street on the riverside checking the stalls on it, we got exhausted and walked back to our place. It was just over 4:00 pm in the evening.

We watched the firework shows from the rooftop of the house I lived. Until next morning –I saw the report on the NYTimes home page when I turned my counter’s internet browser on, I was not aware what was going on outside. The report said that more than 300 people (the death toll later reached up to more than 400) died at the bridge stampede at the Phnom Penh Water Festival. I could not believe because more than ‘300’ was A LOT. We just visited around that area in the evening of the Festival eve. With one of my co-workers, I usually visit the little island across the small bridge in the evenings after work. It is just next to our office. We usually drive our motorcycles around on that little island, connected to the mainland of Phnom Penh with the two small bridges, where there are full of ice-cream shops, other fancy shops, and huge wedding halls and playgrounds. It was one of the popular and beautiful spots in Phnom Penh for young people, couples, and families to hang out around. The river between is more like a small canal and about 40 feet wide.

It was quite hard to accept – how come the security personals could not block out the crowd at the both sides of the entrance to that 20×60 feet bridge and how come they could not prevent or do anything for thousands of people who are crushed and suffocated – many of them were crushed to death. I went out to see the accident area but it was blocked and I went around it seems the business in the town was normal. And I started calling to everyone I know but I just got the response – they all are fine and people who went there and died are only ‘poor people from provinces’. Not ‘rich’ Phnom Penh residents.

The faces of all people I saw on the afternoon of the day – young girls and boys in the colorful jeans pants and t-shirts, families who are having their dinner on the mat laid on the pavements of the roads and sitting one the roadsides while waiting for their relatives who still stuck in the crowd – came up in my minds. That was their once in a year moment or once-in a life time moment for many of them. My boyfriend and I were talking, while walking along at the festival on that afternoon, they might have saved for the whole year to get the travel and other expenses for the festival. They might have been anticipated for the whole year to arrive at this time. I hoped those people we met were not among the victims.

They all were in the moods of the festival and no one was aware of the danger they would face later that day. It was a human-failure cost hundreds of young people’s lives. They deserve a better and safe facilities and security plan. However, up to a week after the accident, nobody steps up and admits the mistake, and takes the responsibilities for this huge accident costing more than 400 lives. The victims were not because they were in ‘bad karma’. They were simply the victims of the social stigma against the poor which always regard that life is simply cheap if you are poor. Nobody got brought to an accountability for this such a terrible mistake. I have to assume that hundreds of people lives were not worth yet even to shake the seat of the responsible His Excellency up. 😦

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About Wai Phyo Myint

Wai Phyo Myint is a senior at Green Mountain College, majoring in Political Journalism. She is now in Cambodia doing her senior studies and volunteering as an Communications/Advocacy strategy intern with International Labour Organiations in Phnom Penh.
This entry was posted in Cambodia, Frugal Asia Trip and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Beautiful Water Festival in Phnom Penh Ended Up in a Terrible Tragedy

  1. Ron Steffens says:

    The questions you ask about why some victims are warranted less honor or concern than others, and how such tragic mistakes are not addressed, truly demonstrates the value of first-person journalism. We are glad you are there, witnessing, and glad you are well. — Ron

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