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Cambodia’s Dragon Boats Make a Welcomed Return

A Cambodian man, left, prays as participants row their dragon boat during a rehearsal for the Cambodian Water Festival on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on Nov. 26, 2023.
A Cambodian man, left, prays as participants row their dragon boat during a rehearsal for the Cambodian Water Festival on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on Nov. 26, 2023.

Cambodians are celebrating the return of dragon boat races to this year’s water festival after a three-year absence, hoping the three-day event will bolster an economy still struggling in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The festival dates to the 12th century, when Angkor kings deployed the royal navy at the start of the fishing season, marking the end of the monsoon, cooler dry weather, and the start of harvesting. But the 21st century version has been blighted by tragedy.

It was canceled for several years after 2010 when a stampede on a narrow bridge left 347 people dead, and in the last three years dragon boat races were not held because of drought, the COVID-19 pandemic and security concerns during regional leadership summits in Phnom Penh.

However, a new bridge replacing the structure that claimed hundreds of lives has just opened and Anya Minko, a project manager who remembers the night of the stampede 13 ago, says Cambodians are hopeful this year’s festival will herald a new beginning.

“We all went through COVID and Cambodia has held a few big events such as the ASEAN summit and last year the boat races, which are an important part of the Water Festival, were also canceled,” the 29-year-old said.

“So after four long years we finally have the boat races again, and yeah, good things are coming,” she said, adding that without the dragon boat races the water festival lacked soul.

Cambodia’s Dragon Boat Races Make a Welcome Return
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Nearly a million people attended on the first day, after 338 dragon boats from across the country registered for the races. They compete over a 1,700-meter course on the Tonle Sap Lake where it meets the Mekong River in front of the Royal Palace.

“I'm delighted that people from 25 provinces including the capital will happily gather here in Phnom Penh to celebrate the festival together,” said Chum Chhorvy, 35, a team leader and oarsman who has trained hard for this year’s races.

Local bars and restaurants expect a boost in trade, but security is also tight with police wary of petty criminals, pickpockets and bag-snatchers out to take advantage of the large crowds.

The water festival also signals the start of the tourist season which has been hurt by a political crackdown – which marred elections held in July – and issues like human trafficking and online scam compounds.

The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been trafficked into Cambodia and forced to operate fraudulent online scams, a subject that featured in a Chinese-made movie “No More Bets,” a box-office hit with the approval of Chinese state censors.

“No More Bets” has been blamed for frightening off tourists, and the government of recently installed Prime Minister Hun Manet has asked the Chinese – to no avail – to ban the movie.

Human rights groups are also demanding the release of more than 60 political prisoners who have been jailed for plotting to overthrow the government.

One hotel owner, who declined to be named, said foreign tourist numbers in Phnom Penh were up by less than 1% year-over-year in mid-November, according to statistics from online travel agency, and he added: “That’s dreadful, but December is looking much better.”

Cambodia is in dire need of foreign investors and Hun Manet has said he is keen to see a resumption of the dragon boats races at this year’s water festival, giving his government a chance to show Cambodia in a better light.

He recently told a group of factory workers that he, his father - former prime minister Hun Sen - and leaders of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had sponsored several of the competing boats.

According to a dispatch from the pro-government Phnom Penh Post, he said that Cambodians could now enjoy the water festival since the pandemic is over.

“Sometimes people find new partners during the water festival and who knows, we may all receive many wedding invitations following this year’s event,” he joked.

Jade Sary, 67, lives on Chrouy Changvar, the peninsula that divides the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. His village has entered three boats, and he is a CPP supporter.

“Hun Sen's son has taken over as prime minister. People are grateful for that and the festival,” he said. “We're getting ready as you can see from the front of our district hall to the royal palace. This year will be bigger and better than previous years. Especially the fireworks.”

However, along the riverfront, other people were reluctant to comment publicly given the government’s heavy-handed response to criticism and perceived slights. Jail terms have been imposed even in regard to mundane issues like comments on the price of fish.

Speaking anonymously, one street vendor said with a smile that she was confident of selling 100 bowls of Cambodian fish noodle soup for a dollar a dish: “I’ve sold two bowls already and I plan to sell 100 over the next three days. Ninety-eight to go.”

Another woman, a Muslim Cham, said trade was brisk as she sold barbecued fish: “We are Islamic and we catch fish for a living, so we sell our fish here and watch the boat races along the river. We don’t gamble, but the Khmers, they love to gamble on the boats.”