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Tackling the mighty Mekong

More than 160 join this year’s Mekong River Swim

Photo by:

HENG CHIVOAN

Participants 'compete' Sunday in the 14th annual Mekong River Swim. Multiyear winner Xavier Riblet claimed yet another victory.

The Mekong flowing through suburban Phnom Penh is not known for either the limpid beauty or therapeutic properties of its waters.

However, this did not deter the record numbers of residents and tourists who plunged into the murky depths Sunday morning to traverse its breadth as part of the 14th Annual Mekong River Swim.

Some 160 participants, with ages ranging from 10 to 71 and nationalities equally diverse, waded into the silt at Preak Leap Agricultural College 6 kilometres north of the capital, to swim the 870 metres across the river.   

Started in 1996 as an informal paddle by members of the global athletic and social organisation Hash House Harriers, the noncompetitive event has now evolved into a fully organised annual ritual that this year received support from prominent local and international sponsors such as Bongthom.com, International SOS, CAMSWIM, Tiger Beer and The Shop.

So, too, the swim has a committed team of volunteer organisers and paramedics at the ready with stopwatches, sandwiches, water, beer, first-aid supplies and, if necessary, an inner-tube or a kayak ride to the finishing bank.

Despite its smooth and safe operation, the swim is largely made feasible by Cambodia's more relaxed approach to occupational health and safety.

"The great thing about this country is that you can get away with things that you could never do in America because of liability issues," said volunteer organiser Josh Svensson, "whereas in Cambodia everyone is responsible for their own actions".

Hint of danger attracts

For many of the swim's predominantly expat participants, it appears the element of risk is a welcome novelty.

"It seems like it's a bit reckless and has that tinge of danger, which people like," said Svensson, "and even though it's extremely safe, you'd still have a hard time doing it in most countries".

Fortunately, the hazards have thus far proved minimal. Barring the odd tickle in the throat, there have been no reports of invasive river parasites, Mekong monsters or cardiac arrests from swimmers.

There has, however, been the odd midstream rescue of ailing swimmers, though it seems they are more often casualties of their own irresponsibility than that of  organisers.

"Last year, I had to give a bit of CPR to one Japanese tourist", said swimmer and volunteer paramedic Jordyan Edmiston. "He'd been out all night drinking and lost consciousness in the water," she explained, "but he was fine in the end. That's the worst it's ever been."

This year, all but one fatigued participant made it across the width of the river unaided, with the only apparent danger being negotiating the gangplank back aboard charter vessels for those who had liberally partaken of the free Tiger beer at the finishing post.

Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN

Participants, above left, prepare to take the plunge on Sunday at this year’s Mekong River Swim. This year’s non-competitive race saw people of every age group, above right, test their mettle against the mighty...and muddy waters of the Mekong.

Swimming for a cause

Contrary to any perceptions of danger, it seems that the swim is doing its utmost to promote the health and well-being of Cambodians, both aquatic and terrestrial. As well as donating any profits to the wildlife group WWF for Mekong conservation activities, this year's event will assist a number of Phnom Penh residents through the fundraising activities of participating teams.

Largest among these groups was the 15-strong team of students, teachers, family and friends from Phnom Penh's iCAN British International School, who were taking on the river to assist NGO Cambodia's Dump Children Committee.

"We have a lot of students who are keen swimmers and wanted to do something to help the kids at the dump," said iCAN's vice principal and swim-team coach, David Hunt. "They decided they would raise money through sponsorship for bikes and helmets to allow the kids to ride to school like they do," he said.

"All the kids came in at between 15 and 18 minutes, and at last count, we'd raised enough for 40 bicycles and helmets for the CDCC."

While all enjoyed complimentary refreshments and souvenir T-shirts, the first across the river received the framed original artwork of the commissioned swim logo.

By now, Frenchman Xavier Riblet has a wall full of these, and he claimed another this year, logging the winning time of 7min, 34sec.

"There was a strong current this year", Riblet said, "so it was a bit slower than usual. My best time was 7minutes, 12 seconds, but that was 12 years ago."

Keeping up the tail end of the swim was compatriot Jacques Roneier, who crossed the river in 45 minutes, and although not the fastest Frenchman in the water this year, Roneier set the record as the oldest, at 71 years.

For the majority of swimmers, who came in at between 20 and 25 minutes, time was secondary to other concerns. As one anonymous source was heard to say before taking the plunge: "Who cares about winning. All I care about is the damn sandwich!"

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