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Cambodia celebrates water festival with boat races

Cambodian participants row their dragon boats during the Water Festival on the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on November 2, 2017. Tens of thousands of Cambodian spectators flocked to the riverfront in the capital Phnom Penh on November 2 to watch the boat races as the country celebrates the annual water festival. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY

Tens of thousands of spectators flocked to the riverfront in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Thursday for an annual boat race — the centrepiece of the kingdom’s water festival.

Around 270 boats, their crew dressed in bright T-shirts, began competing along a stretch of the Tonle Sap river that runs in front of the royal palace.

Concerts and fireworks are also part of the three-day festival, which celebrates the reversal of the flow, a phenomenon that occurs when monsoon rains bloat the Mekong river, pushing the waters of the smaller Tonle Sap in the other direction.

The two rivers intersect in the capital, where Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen and senior government officials looked on as the yearly extravaganza began.

“The water festival is important for all Cambodian people, it is the festival for the king, for our king,” spectator Bun Narath, 51, told AFP.

“We celebrate the water festival to thank ancestors who won the fight with enemies and to thank rivers that provide water for all people,” he added.

On the last day of the water festival in 2010, more than 350 people were killed in a stampede on an overcrowded bridge after panic spread over rumours it was about to collapse.

Hun Sen described the disaster as Cambodia’s worst tragedy since the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 reign of terror, which killed up to a quarter of the population.

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