Perched on the bow of the brightly-painted dragon boat, Worawan Sukraroek keeps her
crew paddling in time with the bilingual chant.
Residents and monks from Wat Russey Chrouy in Kandal province watch, left, as the foreigners climb carefully aboard the Mekong Spirit, the boat they are entering in this year's Water Festival races on the Tonle Sap.
"One, two, three... moui, pi, bei....stroke, stroke, stroke," she yells.
And on it goes. Occasionally, the handful of Cambodians steering from the rear stop
chuckling long enough to dip their paddles in the water and offer strong, powerful
strokes. Each sweep of the paddle elicits a deep, guttural grunt.
It's training day for the international crew of the Mekong Spirit as they prepare
for the boat races that are the major attraction at the Water Festival or Bon Om
Tuk in Khmer, starting on November 7. The Spirit's male and female crew hails from
as far away as Denmark, Germany, Australia, Thailand, England, Wales and France.
An experienced Cambodian helmsman keeps things on the straight and narrow. For most,
this is their first appearance in the Water Festival.
To prepare for the race, the crew has spent weeks practicing. Usually, they make
several runs up and down a stretch of the Tonle Bassac river in Kandal province.
As the boat glides by, farmers with their heads wrapped in red kramas lean on their
hoes and gape from the banks of the river.
Despite the training, with only half a dozen practice sessions under their belt,
the team is humble about its chances of winning against more experienced racers.
"Our initial aim of this little project was, of course, not to sink," says
Chhaya Ang, the Cambodian-Australian co-captain of Mekong Spirit.
The Spirit, the brainchild of staff at the Mekong River Commission, began as a simple
fundraising effort to support a local crew. It was decided that the staff could put
their own expertise to the test, helped by other athletes from the expatriate community.
In practice during the brief rests between sprints, Chhaya stands balanced precariously
on the bow. He gives some words of advice and encouragement to the team. The topic
of bonking, the rowing term for leaning forward and using your back to dig the narrow
paddle through the water, is a favorite amongst the grinning crew. There is no end
of jibes about the team's bonking technique and general vigor.
Despite the jokes and innuendo, the crew improved significantly in its last practices.
By the end of one morning's training, the expectations of the 26-member team had
risen enough to proclaim the boat safe from sinking, although victory remained in
"I just hope we don't get beaten by too much," said one tired paddler.
A rival boat paddled by local boys provides worthy competition for the international team.
The 12.5-meter Mekong Spirit will be one of more than 370 boats registered in this
year's Water Festival, including nine female crews. The foreigner crew will compete
in the international boat-length category of tuk om or seated paddling, but there
is also the tuk cheov style done standing up with rowing oars.
It will not be the first barang team to participate in the event since it resumed
in 1990 after a 20-year hiatus during the time of Lon Nol and then the Khmer Rouge.
At least one other foreign crew has finished the 1.7 km race from the Japanese Friendship
Bridge to the Royal Palace during the mid-1990s. However, a second team of hopeful
expatriates wasn't so lucky. Their boat sank in 1995, along with two Khmer boats.
At the time, they told the Post that waves from a passing boat caused them to capsize.
The origins of the boat race date back to 1178, when a Khmer navy directed by the
future king Jayavarman VII defeated an invading Cham force, an event immortalized
in the bas-reliefs on the Bayon temple in Siem Reap.
According to historian David Chandler, it was military successes such as these, as
well as Jayavarman's political savvy and Buddhist beliefs, that led him to be crowned
king three years later. The naval battle has continued to enjoy mythical status as
proof of the nation's military prowess.
By the 12th century, a three-tiered system was being employed in naval battles. Trained
fighters were positioned in ships on the front line. Auxiliary forces secured a second
line behind the soldiers, and a supply boat, often rowed by women, provided food
and shelter. Little is left of that tradition besides the annual Water Festival races.
This year, the festival promises to be an even greater event as the nation celebrates
the 50th anniversary of its independence from France, as well as honors the ancient
navy, the royal line of kings and the spirit of the water.
Chea Kean, undersecretary with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and a member
of the festival's organizing committee, described the Water Festival as "a symbol
of protecting the integrity of Cambodia's territory".
Kean said the current political tension should not affect the event.
"Even though we haven't got a new government yet, the circular [about the Water
Festival issued by the Permanent Committee of National and International Ceremony]
from before the election is still valid," Chea said. "No one can stop it
because it's an annual traditional ceremony."
As always, Bon Om Tuk coincides with the reversal of the Tonle Sap river's flow,
caused by the huge volume of water flowing down the Mekong River. This about-turn
of the Tonle Sap, which swells the Great Lake to several times its dry-season size,
is the annual aquatic pulse of the nation that provides vast fish breeding grounds
in the floodwaters and rich deposits of silt for the fields.
Chhaya Ang, co-captain of the Mekong Spirit, left, sets the pace during the team's final training session before the races begin.
According to the Mekong River Commission, which sponsors the Mekong Spirit, the massive
floodplain may be the most productive inland fishery in the world.
The Water Festival is also a productive time for the vendors and beggars that flock
to Phnom Penh.
Khi Kein, 43, has supported his wife and five children by begging since a botched
medical treatment left him crippled decades ago. A Japanese NGO recently gave him
a wheelchair he uses to get around the riverside where he can collect about 3,000
riel a day. He says his income will increase to 5,000 riel during each day of the
"Even though I'm sad about my disability, I'm happy I can make some money,"
Keo Ton, 66, has traveled from her home in Prey Veng province for the last seven
years to sell pagoda offerings, mostly white lotus flowers set in fresh coconuts,
by the riverside. She expects to make about 50,000 riel over the three days. She
says it's a very happy time because people from around the country can come together.
The solidarity of those arriving from far and wide is as much a part of the ethos
of the Mekong Spirit team as the Water Festival itself. In fact, a final team meeting
for the team resulted in a post-race party being organized before the actual race
strategy was planned.
But another goal of the team is to benefit the community and show appreciation for
the opportunity to participate in the races. The team registered for the race in
partnership with Wat Russey Chrouy in Kandal province. Besides the exercise and camaraderie
that the racers enjoy, the money raised by the Mekong River Commission will be used
to complete an unfinished building to teach students on the pagoda grounds. In return,
the local committee organized for a new boat to be built, large enough to accommodate
the whole team.
The beautifully decorated wooden boat is so new that racers finish the training sessions
with smears of blue on their feet from the wet paint. But it's a vast improvement
from the small boat that caused them to sink during a previous training session.
However, any talk of winning their races is quickly laughed off. For this bunch of
boating barangs, just crossing the line will be an achievement and an honor for the