BOSTON — During Water Festival in Phnom Penh, it feels like the population of the city triples. Everyone from the countryside pours into the capital. Cars halt in gridlock. It takes an hour to walk one block.
Phnom Penh sits at the confluence of four rivers, and once a year, the flow reverses between the Tonle Sap and the Mekong rivers. Water Festival marks this natural occurrence with three days of boat races, fireworks and general festiveness.
The air of merriment turned deadly this year when a stampede in Phnom Penh claimed the lives of more than 300 people. The stampede apparently began after a few people were electrocuted on a bridge near Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, the same island where city planners intend to build a $200 million satellite city that will include Asia's tallest skyscraper.
Most drowned in the river or were trampled by the panicked mob. According to news reports, witnesses described "bodies stacked on bodies" on the bridge as rescuers swarmed the area. Phnom Penh’s main hospital, Calmette, was packed and injured people were still being carted away from the scene hours later.
It is a tragic, but unsurprising, turn of events in a developing country that doesn’t have the resources to prioritize crowd control and prevent a mob from turning on itself.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has apologized for the catastrophe and ordered an investigation. He’s on the record saying it’s the biggest tragedy since Pol Pot’s regime, during which nearly 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge.
To me, the stampede is far more about Cambodia today than it is a measure of things past.
At my first Water Festival in 2006, I went to Sorya, the teeny bopper tower of a mall in the city’s commercial center. Villagers were lined up in front of the escalator that reached five floors into the sky. A mall attendant stood nearby, showing them how to climb onto the escalator, how to hold the railing and steady themselves.
Villagers stood stick straight, staring at the hand that gripped the railing, as if it weren’t part of their body or had suddenly changed its shape.
It’s this image that comes to mind as I process the heartbreaking news out of Cambodia today. This image of a modern Cambodia changing shape and trying, trying to keep time with the world around it.
Emily Lodish is the Asia editor at GlobalPost. She previously lived in Phnom Penh, where she reported for the Cambodia Daily.