Tragedies in Cambodia always seem to have an air of inevitability about them. The anti-Thai riots in 2003, 40-odd land mine victims a month, massive slum fires, routine floods, occasional droughts and unrelenting street crime have all left their mark on the country’s return to peace over the past 12 years.
But in terms of loss of life, none can surpass the sheer numbers and total senselessness that resulted from the bridge stampede on Monday night, during the final celebrations of the annual Water Festival.
At last count, the death toll from the Diamond Island Bridge disaster was 345, and still rising.
Hindsight is often discredited as too convenient and too late. But like the anti-Thai riots almost eight years ago, the second and third slum fires at around the same time and the culture of impunity that allows crime to flourish, this stampede and ensuing crush was sadly not unexpected.
For the uninitiated, the Water Festival – marking the end of the rainy season when the Tonle Sap changes directions and feeds into the Mekong River – is an extraordinary, colourful event attracting three to four million people each year to the capital. Here they cram and bunk down along the banks of the Tonle Sap, Sisowath Quay and within just two to three city blocks, each person angling for a view of the boat racing that dominates the festival.
Almost every man and his family will at some point make the annual pilgrimage from the remotest parts of Cambodia where much of the population spent decades in isolation because of on-going wars. Up to a quarter of the country’s entire population can be seen within a few square miles of each other once the festival gets underway.
Between boat races, Cambodia’s country cousins can be seen checking out the buildings of the Big Smoke, the local restaurants and an array of shops that stand in total contrast to life back home.
Among my fondest memories was settling in for a Water Festival weekend with a group of friends on a first floor balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club, which commands a terrific vista along the river front, the races and the heaving spectacle below.
One family had adopted the common practice of walking Indian file along Sisowath Quay through the crowds with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front to make sure they didn’t get separated. Once outside the FCC they noticed us, about 10 Westerners well armed with wine, beer and whiskey, dining out on a pretty extensive spread, looking like a tribe of well-fed chimpanzees in a zoo.
Upon deciding we were worth further investigation this family carved out a space in the middle of the throng, laid out a blanket on the road, sat down and ate their lunch in front of us, often pointing and sharing a laugh while ogling the odd white people on the balcony above.
The Water Festival is when the country comes to town and in Cambodia the sheer weight of numbers that arrive each year for the nation’s biggest party can be terrifying.
Most Westerners and many Cambodians who live in the capital leave Phnom Penh during this period as the country’s poorest and least educated drink, gamble on the races and basically take over the streets.
Cambodia crowd control measures would infuriate and leave their more experienced counterparts elsewhere in South-east Asia and beyond totally aghast.
For the most part, Phnom Penh is safe during the water festival. But when the authorities investigating the bridge stampede sit down and ask themselves who could have seen this coming, the answer really should be everybody.