Phnom Penh’s Entrepreneurs Looking Forward To Good-For-Business Water Festival

2014 was the last year that boat races were held in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival.

With full-scale celebrations for the Water Festival gracing the capital for only the second time in six years, local businesses are gearing up for festivities they believe will help increase sales and provide plentiful advertising opportunities.

The prominent holiday, celebrated throughout the country to mark the end of the rainy season and the reversal of the Tonle Sap river, will take place over a three-day period, from November 13 to 15. It is expected to draw over two million visitors to the capital, who will circulate through a limited number of locations. For local establishments, it is a prime opportunity for sales.

Le Moon will be quite busy during the Water Festival,” says Anne Guerineau, general manager of riverside’s Amanjaya Pancam Hotel and its rooftop bar Le Moon. She says they will be open from 3pm during the festival, instead of the usual 5pm.

The FCC will open as usual during the holiday, says Marco Julia Eggert, the riverside establishment’s managing director, noting that their rooftop venue The Terrace will open its doors at the earlier time of 10am and won’t be closing until late at night. “We want to offer our customers the possibility to watch the boat races from our unique location,” added Eggert.

Besides extending their opening hours, many of these establishments are also preparing special events to maximise the business opportunities brought about by the celebrations. The Riverhouse Bistro, for example, will hold Apsara dance shows during the day, while upstairs, a live band and a DJ will perform at night.

When it comes to the hotel sector, however, the prevailing mood is not nearly as upbeat. Charles-Henri Chevet, general manager at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra says that his hotel “traditionally holds a moderate level of occupancy during the Water Festival”.

Andrew Tay, general manager at Himawari Hotel Apartments, also admits they will see a slight drop in bookings during the holidays, as guests from the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors take time off work and leave the city.

Tight security

During the festival, the Tonle Sap comes to life at night with many brightly illuminated boats.

Throughout the city, five locations are being prepared for concerts and live entertainment during the festivities, says Mean Chanyada, spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall. Both the government and the private sector – including companies such as Cambrew, Hang Meas, Bayon, Ganzberg and Leo – are organising events at these locations.

As with previous years, Sisowath Quay and certain adjoining streets will be pedestrianised. Likewise, to ease traffic congestion, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong announced yesterday a complete moratorium on construction projects, and banned large trucks from entering the city for November 12 to 16.

A Consumer Fair will be held at Wat Botum Park, with around 100 vendors booths selling and promoting local and international products to the festival goers.

Over 10,000 security personnel – including police officers, state bodyguards, military police officers and navy officers – will be deployed during the event. “All important locations such as Koh Pich [Diamond Island] and the Royal Palace will be under high security, and we will also take action in other areas celebrating the festival,” says Chanyada.

An influx of Khmer tourists

This year, a total of 259 boats will race during the festival in the capital.

Last year, the government cancelled the boat races, arguing that water levels of the Tonle Sap River were too low. But Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in May that the boat races would be taking place this year, attracting an expected increase in visitors to watch the competitions on the city’s riverbanks.

The bulk of these visitors will be comprised of Cambodian nationals, FCC’s Eggert explains. Early November is still shoulder season in terms of tourism, he says, adding that a rise in foreign tourists is not expected until the end of the month, when the monsoon ends and the peak tourist season kicks off.

Eggert also highlighted that while during the Pchum Ben or Khmer New Year holidays locals leave the capital to reunite with relatives in the province, during the Water Festival this movement is reversed: people from the provinces come to meet with relatives and watch the boat races. This adds to the number of Cambodian nationals that will be roaming the streets, says Eggert.

The festival returned to the capital in 2014 following a three-year hiatus after a stampede on a Koh Pich footbridge packed with revellers killed over 350 people in 2010. Without the traditional boat races last year, the number of visitors was dampened.

The Water Festival is one of the most important holidays in the Khmer calendar and it is celebrated throughout the country, with villages and cities alike coming to life with a vibrant, carnival-like atmosphere. In Phnom Penh, the festival will be held under the high chairmanship of King Norodom Sihamoni, and a total of 259 boats will partake in the races throughout each of its three days.


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