This morning the sun rose on Cambodia just like every other day. People began their business just like every other day. Today is not like any other day.

In the early hours of this morning at least 300 people were killed in a stampede on Diamond Island’s north bridge. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called the event “the biggest tragedy since the Pol Pot regime”.

Last night I ventured into the warm air planning to attend the water festival. Sharing a tuk-tuk with three others we made it only as far as closest major road. For an hour we inched painfully along a swarm of motos, tuk-tuks, buses, cars and people. The heat from the engines was unbearable. Motos climbed footpaths, tuk-tuks scraped cars and horns saturated the air. Young, well-dressed Khmer looked bright-eyed and excited. Drunk men frantically forced their motos forward where there was no room. Overheating tuk-tuks blew black smoke as their hapless drivers waded against the surging traffic. It was chaos. We abandoned the tuk-tuk and carefully walked home.

This morning I awoke to several calls inquiring about my well-being. It wasn’t until I read the news did I understand. My heart sank.

People were already busy at work as the sun spread across the city. From a cafe I watched yellow uniformed cleaners sweep rubbish with straw brooms, construction workers dismantle stages and rusted tug boats manoeuvre floating stages against the Mekong banks. Everything was carrying on as usual.

A small TV sat above the counter. It was locked on a Khmer channel. Gruesome images of the tragedy were being shown over and over as a panel of Khmer news readers discussed the event. A young waitress handed me a menu. I inquired about her family and friends. She smiled and assured me everything was OK and that she had enjoyed the weekend festivities. After some moments reading the menu I turned back to the television. The channel had been changed.

Several other tourists entered the cafe and asked about the young woman’s well-being. She politely smiled and said that everything was fine. The tourists returned to discussion about the event, heat, overcrowding, future travel plans and other related subjects.

The cause of the stampede is of some conjecture. Several newspapers report that sections of the crowd, upon hearing the bridge was collapsing, panicked. Others report police began firing a water cannon into the crowd in an effort to keep them moving, which not only created panic but also caused electrocution as the bridge was festooned with electric lights.

Reading the articles sparked my curiosity to see the site itself, but then I recalled reading that Phnom Penh experiences an influx of 2 million people during the water festival. I decided to take a trip just out of town to watch the masses return to the provinces. One after another obscenely filled vehicle passed by. A handful of trucks towed dragon boats. Groups of men sat atop vans and flat bed trucks singing loudly, beating drums. Occasionally a vehicle would run off the side of the road kicking dust onto the following motos. People waved and yelled hello. Everybody was smiling.

It grew hotter. I wondered if they had even heard about the stampede. Even if they had, would it have made a difference? I have not known a people to be as gracious, open or resilient as the Khmer.

I believe resilience is the reason life in Phnom Penh continues today as normal. I continue to be totally and utterly astounded by my time in Cambodia. Each new experience gives me further insight into the Khmer psyche. Even following the tragic event this morning and although in private morning the Khmer show astonishing strength and unbreakable will.

This evening the sun will set on Cambodia just like every other day. People will retire to their homes just like every other day. But today is not like any other day.

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%