My thoughts are with the people of Cambodia in the wake of the tragic accident last night at the Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk. Latest reports suggest nearly 400 people perished in a stampede on the newly opened Rainbow Bridge connecting Phnom Penh to Diamond Island, a small island owned by a local bank and recently opened as an entertainment and shopping precinct.
Rumours abound as to what provoked the stampede. The new bridge, described as ‘toy-like’ by one blogger, was draped in coloured lights. Initial reports said the stampede started when a group of people become electrocuted, but others suggest the electrical cables came down as people tried to climb on to the bridge to escape the crush. A doctor at the Calmette Hospital said suffocation and electrocution were the two leading causes of death. An eye-witness interviewed on News Radio this morning said most of the dead ‘looked like garment factory workers’: young girls in their early 20s, many of whom come from the countryside to work in the Cambodian capital.
Bon Om Touk is supposed to be a time of national celebration. I was living in Phnom Penh during the festival of 2008 and I described it at the time as probably the biggest street party I’ll ever attend. Unlike the other major Cambodian festivals when people go home to the provinces, the Water Festival brings over one million people into to the capital, almost doubling the population. People camp in temple grounds and public parks, and the city authorities put portable toilets in place to accommodate the influx.
A major event of the festival is the boat races on the Tonlé Sap River. For three days the riverside is lined with spectators, watching crews from all around the country race long-tail boats in heats until the final race on the last day, which is watched by the Cambodian king. The festival coincides with the point when the Tonlé Sap River changes direction, reversing its flow from the Tonlé Sap Lake to the Mekong River. Two stories date the festival back to the 12th century, when it may have either marked the start of the fishing season, or served as a re-enactment of Khmer naval victories. The Buddhist festival of Loy Pratip is celebrated at the same time, with massive illuminated floats, sponsored by various ministries and institutions, cruising up and down the river after sunset, accompanied by fireworks.
My partner Andrew and I spent the opening night of Bon Om Touk in 2008 cruising Phnom Penh’s streets in a tuk-tuk, accompanied by his mother and sister and our then nearly three-year-old daughter Natasha. We took Tash briefly to the riverfront on the first day of the races, but after that she stayed home with a babysitter while Roo and I made forays into different parts of town to witness the festivities. I remember the streets being densely packed, and not so much walking as being swept along by the current of people. It was overwhelming but not frightening. No one pushed or shoved. Everyone was enjoying themselves. I thought at the time that crowds this size could never be trusted to behave so well back home.
I don’t know what happened last night to make everything go so horribly wrong.
Prime Minister Hun Sen described yesterday’s event as “the biggest tragedy since the Pol Pot regime.” I suspect this tragedy will back the pain for those who suffered through that brutal period between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge.
I feel so sad for the people of Cambodia. My thoughts are with you.