A steady warm breeze buffeted the long line of Cambodians who gathered on the
banks of the Tonle Sap River Thursday morning to honor those who perished in
Monday night's tragic stampede, described by Cambodia's Prime Minister as the
worst loss of human life here since the Khmer Rouge regime.
One by one they approached a table covered with a silk tapestry, gently laying
lotus blossoms on the table or placing incense in a prayer bowl. Each bowed in
silent prayer, pausing to cast a lingering glance across the Koh Pich Bridge
where more than 450 people died, then turned away to make room for the next
Normally a nation of fun-loving and joyous people, all of Cambodia seems tired
and deeply sad in the aftermath of the tragic event, which occurred at the close
of the annual three-day Water Festival.
On Wednesday night, Phnom Penh seemed to withdraw. The normal crush of cars, tuk
tuks, and motorbikes was reduced to light traffic on Sihanouk Boulevard.
Everywhere, small curbside shrines appeared with offerings of bananas, incense,
rice, salt, and water -- nourishment for the tortured souls prematurely taken from
In this country of Buddhists -- 94% of the population -- time-honored rituals and
superstitions surfaced everywhere. Heang Thy, a 26-year-old woman with an MBA
from Hong Kong University, gave up the fight of a sleepless night and crept into
bed with her mother to escape her fears of angry ghosts of those who lost their
"One side of my brain tells me they don't exist, but the other makes me very
afraid," she said.
A well-known executive of a non-governmental organization here termed the Koh Pich
bridge a "killing bridge" and said it should be torn down.
His sentiment is echoed by many others who say the land where the tragedy
occurred is cursed. Diamond Island -- the tiny spit of land connected to Phnom
Penh by two small bridges -- was once occupied by hundreds of poor Cambodians who
were abruptly relocated to the provinces to make way for development of the
prize land at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
Prevailing sentiment in this deeply superstitious culture implies that bad karma
begets bad luck, that something like this might have been expected on a piece
of land tainted by misery and evil.
Outside several hospitals where many dead remain unclaimed and the injured
struggle to recover, relatives of those still missing and unaccounted for
scanned photos of the deceased in macabre quests for closure. The photos have a
number affixed below each face, making the display eerily reminiscent of
a bulletin board at the nearby notorious S-21 Toul Sleung Prison, where photos
of the damned stare in silent testimony to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime
40 years ago.
Cambodians know about tragedy, and they also know about survival. Fruit vendors
took advantage of the sudden demand for bunches of bananas -- a staple of
Buddhist offerings -- raising the price from 2500 riel (about 60 US cents) to
as much as 25,000 riel (about $6 US).
Members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party were reportedly handing out envelopes containing $5 to victims' families who waited at hospitals to learn their loved ones' fates, raising questions as to whether the gesture was one of benevolence or political gamesmanship.
In a country where opportunities are meant to be seized, few find cause to
criticize these exploitations. Instead, they accept such realities as part of the normal course of life.
As the morning wore on, mourners approached the bridge in groups, each with an
elaborate floral arrangement representing a government ministry or province.
One ribbon on an enormous floral spray read "Long Beach, CA" followed by a group
of four women, a man, and a girl of about nine representing a part of the US where
many Cambodian immigrants have settled over the years.
On this Thanksgiving Day -- a national day of mourning declared by Prime Minister
Hun Sen, the Cambodian strongman who reportedly shed a tear publicly at the
service -- they came by the hundreds to gather, pray, and help the souls of the
dead find peace.
They lined up, mostly in black and white, with incense, lotus blossoms, or other
flowers in their hands, prepared to pay respects to the hundreds of people who
went to a party Monday night and simply never came home.
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