Diamond Island (or Koh Pich in Khmer) is a spit of land located a few kilometres south of the confluence of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. It is separated from Phnom Penh by a narrow channel and two small bridges. On weekends, Phnom Penh’s youth descend on Diamond Island to sip coffee and beer, stroll amidst gaudy art deco gardens, ride Ferris wheels, play carnival games, and, most importantly, cruise on their motorbikes.
On November 22, 2010, Diamond Island made international headlines when over three hundred people were trampled to death and nearly eight hundred more were injured in a stampede on the island’s northernmost bridge. People from surrounding provinces had flocked to the island for the annual three-day water festival—Cambodia’s most important public holiday that marks both the end of the monsoon season and the reversal of the Tonlé Sap River’s flow. After a day of boat races and an evening of concerts, mass panic ensued. Several investigations were launched to determine what sparked the tragedy, but no conclusions were ever made. Similarly, news media outlets all cited different causes for the stampede (see below). In order to avert future tragedies, the government has begun constructing several new bridges to be opened in time for this year’s festival.
The development of Diamond Island epitomizes the changing face of Phnom Penh. A decade ago, the island was home to three hundred poor families who made their meagre livings growing rice and catching fish. Today, after several land reclamation projects, it is a concrete sprawl of western-style fast food restaurants, banquet halls, carnival rides, and games. A gated community of cookie-cutter townhouses is currently in construction on the island’s southern tip, and there are plans to build several condominiums, a shopping mall, and even a hospital. Developers envision Diamond Island becoming a city within a city; a place for the affluent to live and play without having to rub noses with the capital’s impoverished masses.
But what happened to the people who used to live here? And what happened last November?
I found Chon (27) lounging on a bench with a pretty Japanese backpacker. Born in Kampot province, Chon moved to Phnom Penh to pursue a legal education. “I come here every day,” he said. “In Cambodia, there are no places to travel; no places to relax. I come here whenever I can.” Chon’s favourite activity? Cruising on his moto. When I asked him about what Diamond Island was like before its recent development, Chon said, “Before, there were no buildings, no roads. Nothing. There was only land.” My final question: what can Cambodians learn from last year’s tragedy? Chon said, “It was terrible, but there is nothing we can learn. There was no reason for it.”
When I met Nuomcham (22), she was engaged in Cambodia’s most popular pastime: sitting on the back of a parked motorbike and chatting with friends. An unemployed hairdresser, Nuomcham visits Diamond Island weekly with her boyfriend and family to people watch. When I asked her what Diamond Island looked like before its recent makeover, she said, “I have no idea.”
Whereas most western amusement parks have multiple carnival games, Diamond Island only has one: balloons and darts. There must be nearly a hundred stalls operating the same game, and wherever you walk, proprietors rush at you with handfuls of darts, begging you to play. The prizes? Stuffed animals, cheap plastic toys, wood sculptures, house wares, and dusty bottles of soda, dish soap, and bleach. 5000 riel ($1.25 USD) buys me eight darts. I only hit three balloons. My prize: a glass mug.
Praoun (23) moved to Phnom Penh a year and a half ago from Takeo province to work at the carnival. “I love my job,” he said, “but business has been bad since the stampede. Less people come.” On the night of November 20, 2010, Praoun was working his booth when tragedy struck. “I felt very scared when I heard the commotion,” he said, “but I did not see it.” When I asked him why it happened, he said, “I do not know.”
I saw Srey (52) lounging in a faux-Greco gazebo supported by columns of bare-breasted women in togas. Five years ago, Srey moved to Phnom Penh with her family from Svay Rieng province to find work. Now, she sells beverages near the bridge that leads to the island.
Of all the people I talked to on Diamond Island, Srey was the only one who seemed to know about the area’s past. She told me about the poor farmers who used to scrape their living off this small strip of land, farmers who periodically return to the island to watch its transformation. It was from their mouths that Srey learned of their fate. In the early 2000s, the government, having already reached deals with investors to develop the island, offered its residents a buyout package: $100,000 USD for each family plot. While many people took the offer and left, others decided to stay. This was their home: they had nowhere else to go. When government agents returned the following year, they offered the remaining inhabitants $50,000 for their family plots. With no documentation proving the ownership of their land, many families buckled to their inevitably declining fortunes and accepted the offer. However, armed with legally binding property deeds, twenty three families decided to stay. Police arrived and forcefully evicted these remaining farmers. This last group received no compensation.
On the night of November 22, 2010, Srey was at Diamond Island, busy selling drinks to the crowds that had come for the water festival. She witnessed the stampede firsthand: “There were two groups of men fighting. When one fled, the other followed. The fight continued on the bridge, and people started coming to watch. So many people came onto the bridge, they began to be crushed. People jumped off the bridge and into the water. Some hit boats under the bridge and died. People got free, begged me for water. I gave it to them. The police showed up and starting beating back the crowds that had assembled.”
Despite its troubling history, Diamond Island remains Srey’s favourite place in Phnom Penh: “There is nowhere else we can go to enjoy fresh air in the evenings, nowhere else to walk.” It should be noted that with the exception of a few strips of grass and benches between busy downtown boulevards, Phnom Penh completely lacks public parkland.
The city’s youth, it seems, does not want to be bothered with the past: they come to Diamond Island to have fun; they live for the pleasures of the present. The city is rapidly changing, and to Phnom Penh’s young majority, all changes are good. “These things are not so important,” Chon said towards the end of our interview—I had asked him about his feelings regarding last year’s stampede. “Why do you ask these questions? Things like this happen everywhere and all the time.”
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For harrowing firsthand accounts of last November’s tragedy, see the following articles:
Global Voices: “Cambodia: Stampede Tragedy During Water Festival”
France 24: “Hundreds Dead as Popular Water Festival Ends in Tragedy”
Sky News: “Cambodia: 456 Dead in Festival Stampede”
The New York Times: “Stampede in Cambodia Leaves Hundreds Dead”