I lived in Cambodia for two years. The Water Festival going on there is a crazy time, surreal during your first experience and a time to get as far away from the city as possible during any subsequent ones. There are four rivers that meet near Phnom Penh, and one of them, the Tonle Sap, is the only river in the world to regularly reverse direction. During the rainy season, it flows south from a river of the same name into the Mekong River, the seventh-largest river in Asia. During the dry season, beginning usually sometime in late November, the river turns around and replenishes the lake.
The festival commemorates this event, and millions of people from the countryside come into the capital, sleeping on sidewalks, streets, the few spots of grass to be found in the city and anywhere else they can find. The city shuts down, with not a business in sight open. Many of Phnom Penh's residents evacuate the onslaught of outsiders, heading to home villages. Cambodia is heavily rural outside of the capital, so for most foreigners options are more limited. My first year, I stayed in town to take in the atmosphere. My second, I escaped to a beach town along the Gulf of Thailand.
It's impossible to move around in the city during the festival. Moving two blocks takes 45 minutes on foot, and forget driving motorbikes (the primary method of transportation for most in the country) or cars. The mobs are unbelievable. Drinking, games of many varieties, paddle boat races and, at least the year I was there, a parade of boats bearing sails with the logos of the various government ministries at night that just, to me at least, reeked of the country's communist past.
In any case, this incident is sadly unsurprising. Tragic, of course, but a statement on Cambodia today. The country's health care is poor at best, not suited to handle this sort tragedy, and corruption in all levels of government and all aspects of life are a fact of life in Cambodia.
I haven't found a good way to donate to help the injured or families who lost a member, but when I do I'll share it here in case anyone would like to help. I also would like to come back and describe this surreal experience I had at this same Water Festival back in 2008 that I still haven't wrapped my head around, but I don't have time right now.
Here is a first-hand account from an Australian who witnessed the whole thing.
Australian Sean Ngu, who is visiting family and friends in Phnom Penh, describes the stampede during Cambodia's water festival, in which at least 339 people were killed.
"I was in the park, some 30m away from the bridge. There was lots of noise and celebration cheer. Suddenly the cheer became screams, louder and louder. At first we thought people were celebrating, but the screams were different.
There were too many people on the bridge and both ends were pushing towards the centre. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground and then get crushed.
Those who were leaning against them were pushed further into the centre. This caused a sudden panic. I saw at least 50 people jumping in the river.
Others tried to climb onto the bridge, grabbing and pulling loose cables - electric shocks caused many more deaths.
It was complete chaos, nobody knew what to do. The police, security and the military came straight away. Ambulances arrived within minutes. The prime minister and his wife also came straight away to inspect the situation. Continue reading the main story “Start Quote
The city is full of people. It is very quiet right now, apart from the ambulances. What a tragic end to a wonderful celebration”
The police started to move the crowd away from the area. We stood nearby, trying to see if anyone will emerge from the water and hear the latest announcements on the number of deaths.
No-one saw one single person coming out of the river - all those people must have drowned.
The last we heard on local news was that nearly 400 people are dead and that 240 of them are women and girls. Over 1,000 people are injured. The main hospital is full - they normally charge for hospital treatment, but they are not charging tonight.
I am shocked, everybody is shocked. It happened so quickly.
We are at home now and the phones haven't stopped. People are calling their friends and family to make sure they are fine.
The water festival is one of the most important celebrations in the year and many people arrive from the countryside. The city is full of people. It is very quiet right now, apart from the ambulances.
One thing I should have mentioned earlier. There is a big difference between the leadership of unions and the rank and file. In many ways over the last 20+ years the politics of the leadership has diverged from the membership.