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"Om Tuk" Cambodia's Water Festival

By: Cat Barton Posted: January-01-2006 in
Cat Barton

Most people who have lived in Phnom Penh more than a year and have thus experienced an Om Tuk, flee the capital. The migrational patterns of the Khmer dictates all cities empty during Khmer New Year as dutiful urban-migrant offspring return to the paddy field from whence they sprang. At Om Tuk, all people, of all ages, from all provinces across the Kingdom descend upon Phnom Penh. The influx of people is such that even in Phnom Penh - a place where men have no qualms about, nor face sanctions for, peeing in broad daylight against the (heavily policed) walls of the Royal Palace - the municipality erect public toilets in preparation. Admittedly, as the Daily said, there were only 50 new toilets installed, but their very installation indicates the importance accorded organisation - rare in Cambodia - which is proof of the magnitude of the event itself.

A ring, rather like an impromptu version of the congestion charge ring that currently girds London, springs up over night. Vehicular traffic is prohibited save if you have a pass or pay a 2000 riel bribe. There are so many people walking on the streets that it is nigh on impossible to get vehicles through; valiant attempts were made by some with important cargo.

John deposited his bike at my house and we wandered up through the crowds in Hun Sen Park towards the river. Hungry, we sat and watched the mass seethe by; road-side fried noodles apparently quadruple in price during Om Tuk owing to booth rent increases. Incredulous, John handed over $4 for what would normally cost $1 and we walked off into a dense Phnom Penh Carnival.

We arrived way down the river beyond the finish line so were able to watch the boats as they drifted past, off duty, from a jetty behind the Cambodiana Hotel.

Though some people did seem more interested in playing in the water than watching the boats.

The boats are remarkably long; I wanted a close look so se walked back through the fair ground to head further up the river. The fair was magnificent; thronging with people.

I was deeply envious of some of the more exciting looking children's' rides. John and I both lamented the fact we were too large to play on the bouncy castle in the background. It looked excellent fun; though seemed on the brink of deflation. There was also a flat (no longer bouncy) castle on the right which had clearly given up the ghost some time before....

We wandered along the riverbank. In order to assuage my sorrow at being a little too grown up to ride in a brightly coloured duck, I purchased a white feather crown.

Om Tuk is the most wonderful carnival. The crown earned John and I, as foreigners amidst an entirely Khmer crowd, kudos me thinks; a group of girls with matching brightly coloured crowns shrieked in delight to see me thus attired. Still hungry, despite our exorbitantly overpriced noodles, we contemplated some dried sting ray.

Thanks to the ever efficient Mr Pheap at the Post, I had a special Press Om Tuk pass. John lost his when someone in the crowd unbuttoned his pocked and slipped his wallet out without his noticing. Pickpockets are impressive during Om Tuk; I left everything of value at home. I waved my pass and John waved my camera pretending to be an official photographer and the policeman, after taking a long swing from his beer, waved us into the Royal enclosure. From there we got to see the boats up close. They are excessively long and scattered all over the river either racing or resting.

The riverbank was a solid mass of people. Ever inch of the concrete slope down to the water was coated in people.

Having obtained the luxury of a clear patch of slope down to the water by virtue of our blagging entry to the Royal enclosure, we proceeded to use it to the full and watch as the boats approached the Royal Box. They then wave their hats in unison as a Khmer chant, which due to my illiterate ears had an august air of solemnity, is yelled and stomped out by the rowers. Homage to the King me thinks.....

Once the races had finished, we headed back up to the main road. The finish line of the race, hence the Royal box were we had been, is directly in front of the Royal Place, so this is the crowd, held back a police line, with the sun setting behind them and the Palace. This is my favourite time of day in Cambodia; everything is most beautiful in this light. Normally, I run along the river around this time; increadable to see it so thick with people one can barely walk

Seeking a vantage point for the floats and fire works, we bounced through the crowd but only made it as far as the FCC (about 100 yards) before slipping away to order a whisky sour, gin and tonic, and meet an interesting Canadian couple on their honeymoon who (admirous of my crown) kindly invited us to share their table and view. I have never seen the riverside so packed with people. The normally calm Sisowath Quay was seething, normally omnipotent cars marooned.

As it turned dark, and we had got through more drinks, I and my new-found partner in crime - the male half of the Canadian couple - scrambled right up onto the roof of the FCCFCC to photograph the crowds watching the floats go by.

After that, we wandered back to my house. We did get somewhat crushed outside the Royal Palace, but fortunately John and I are both taller than the average Khmer so didn't loose each other. By the time we got to Wat Botum and took the back street past Hun Sen Park, it was a little quieter but still just felt like the most wonderful street party.

Monday night, Om Tuk grand finale. John again deposited his bike at my house, and we crossed the police picket line and headed up Norodom towards the Independence Monument which in the twilight looked as if it were growing out of the seething mass of people wrapped round its roots.

We walked closer; can you spot me and my crown in the crowd below? [I am the only one with blonde hair]

Having made it past the Independence Monument, we hopped on a moto and headed up to Pontoon, at the far end of the river, to watch the floats from their roof. John and Randal watch the RCAF float go past from the roof of Pontoon:

At some point during our wandering, I had decided to complement my white feather crown with a flashing star necklace. Playing with it on the roof of Pontoon:

The smile - caused by utter delighted fascination - caught on my face in the photo below perfectly encapsulates how I have felt all Om Tuk.

The ANZ Royal - the company which brought ATMs to Cambodia - float has stirred up some controversy: much muttering, both barang and foreign, as to whether there should be floats solely for the purpose of advertising. All the other floats are ministries, royalty, the army etc. Michael was told by one outraged observer it was shameless commercial intrusion into a traditional demonstration of the institutions of state. And it wasn't exactly tasteful: a giant luminous cash machine, the cards light up one by one then illuminate the entire ATM, but I must admit I had grown rather fond of all its naff glory by the end of Om Tuk. Here it is, with the full moon above:

We left Pontoon and wandered down the Sisowath Quay to get to a party at a Daily flat on the river front which has a good balcony.

The crowd was insane; Phnom Penh is never busy at night but the streets were still packed. This is the view from the balcony:

From the balcony, we watched as a moto shot through the crowds at a ridiculous pace. It swiftly became apparent he was chasing a thief and within seconds, a mob formed and grabbed the luckless guy. He was seriously beaten as we stood and watched from above - luckily, a ramore [long trailer attached to a moto] was parked nearby so the thief rolled underneath and eventually was able to crawl away - he was walking, but only just.

On the walk home, we stopped at the Royal Float. It was past one in the morning yet the float was still lit and hundreds of people were just milling around it. This is the Royal Float in all its glory, the Cambodian full moon above it.

And here, finally, is a tired but very happy Cat; Om Tuk is excellent.

Sesquipedalian

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