Thursday, December 30, 2010

Water Festival Tragedy - in Cambodia

 As we arrived at the water festival, there were all sorts of snacks and toys and decorations. You could tell that everyone in the city from the very young to the very old were enjoying themselves. Ryan looked up information about the water festival online and discovered that
"Bon Om Thook (Khmer) n), the Khmer Water Festival, is a Cambodian festival celebrated in November. Every town and province joins in with the festival but the biggest celebrations take place in Phnom Penh. For three days, workers from every province join with the city's residents to celebrate by night and day.
The festival lasts for three days, and commemorates the end of the country's rainy season,[1] as well as the reversal of flow of the Tonle Sap River.[2] It includes boat races and concerts, and attracts several million people each year... The Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia's dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, when the year's heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake." - Wikipedia
This is different from the other water festivals in southeast Asia which commemorate the new year.
 The streets were packed with people - mostly young people.
 We saw the traditional boat races. This tradition is an ancient one.
 People were flooding the area around the river to watch the boat races; There they said that over 1 million people typically attend this festival.
 We headed down by the palace where the king of Cambodia lives. The people really love their king, although they do make jokes about him being single and enjoying ballet.
 To our surprise, army and police officials began to line up - and a few moments later the king himself came to join in the fun at the water festival. Jayne Anne McKewin was thrilled to see the king! She always was a bit starstruck by him.
 Kids were everywhere - playing with small tires, small fish-shaped boats, they were digging in the sand and running around - sometimes holding a younger sibling on their hip.

 This is photographic evidence that Jayne Anne saw the king. And that was our water festival experience - until later when we went to the beach and heard through the grapevine about the tragic events of 11/22/10. "At least 349 people were killed and hundreds injured in a stampede in Cambodia that broke out while thousands were celebrating a water festival on an island in a river in Phnom Penh late on 22 November 2010." -
The people we were staying with were all horrified - They felt the way Americans did on 9/11 - but it was much closer to home for them. The population of the entire country is less than 15 million and the entire country is only about twice the size of Ohio.
 This is the bridge where the stampede took place. We went to see it after we arrived back in phnom penh from the beach.
 These golden papers were littered everywhere around the scene - I'm not entirely sure of their significance.
 The vendors came with their wares as the mourning people congregated in the area.
 There was caution tape around the scene and monks visiting. Family members and friends gathered together in a somber mass around the river. Many people were crying or praying.
Some people (maybe some of the monks?) spread a rumor that was going through the city. People believed that there was an evil spirit that was like a dragon and killed people and might kill again if the spirit was not appeased. Additionally, it was said that only bananas would appease this specific spirit - so demand for bananas skyrocketed raising the price to $10 a bunch. The equivalent of a month's wages for some. Then the expensive bananas were left out in shrines such as this one as an offering to the spirit.
It was pretty wild and sobering to experience this national tragedy firsthand. I felt like it would be good to share some of the photos with others who might be interested in what went on there.

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