A n estimated 800,000 Khmers jammed the streets and parks and lined Chatomuk river
bank to watch the longboat races, fireworks and lighted boat flotilla during the
three day annual Water Festival.
With 250 boats entered, compared to 142 last year, the traditional boat races held
at the Chatomuk, the area in front of the Royal Palace where the Tonle Sap and Bassac
merge with the Mekong river, were the highlight of the festival.
Organizer Chea Kien said this year's festival, from Nov 6-8, was the largest he has
For the first time since racing resumed in 1991, boats were entered from all 22 provinces,
some arriving in Phnom Penh by river and others by road. The increased interest was
attributed to more sponsors and more prizes. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen announced
that all boats would get a minimum prize of 200,000 riels, and winners 800,000 riels.
Boats were sponsored by their villages or communes, private companies, ministries,
NGOs and individuals. Many of the crews were dressed in brightly colored t-shirts,
shorts, caps and scarves. At least three boats sank during the three days of races,
including one boat manned by an expat crew. The crews were rescued without incident.
The crew on the expat boat that sank said they were swamped by the wake of a patrol
boat just as the boats were preparing to line up for the finale in front of the King
and Queen's viewing stand.
Most of the winners came from Kampong Thom, Kandal and Kompong Cham, according to
One of the winners, Nu Sok, 42, of Kandal, said the streamlined shape of his 2-year-old
boat and an experienced crew of 42 made the difference. "I am very, very happy
with my great success," he said. "We were trying very hard to be the winners.
Everyone wants to be the winner."
"It is not only the prize, but also the reputation of my boat and village who
are expecting us to be the winner."
"On the last day, some people laughed at us and joked because our competitor
from Kompong Cham was a boat sponsored by second prime minister, Hun Sen; and it
won first prize last year," he said.
Some said it wasn't so bad to lose either. Li Nay, 45, whose crew came from Prey
Veng province, won one race in three days.
"We are still happy even though we will be bringing back a losing face. We have
to be happy because we came a long way and it is the national water festival held
in Phnom Penh. We cheered to our king," he said.
"I know we also tried very hard to be the winners. If everyone wants to be to
the winner, who will be the losers?"
Some people who could not see the boat races roamed through the discotheques and
parks where music blared, vying for motorcycles, bicycles and televisions awarded
in lucky draws.
Kien explained that the Water Festival, known as Bun Om Tuk, dates back to the Angkor
period when boats in the powerful navy of King Jayaraman VII in the 12th century
competed against the enemy.
In Buddhist scriptures Bun Om Tuk is held to give thanks to the spirit of water,
which brings not just water but fertile land for the villagers who live along the
Another scripture said that the Water Festival is dedicated to spirit of the dragon
king who lives in the water.
According to rural traditions, at the end of the races villagers make banana boats
and set them afloat on the river filled with chicken, incense, candles, rice or other
crops, to thank the spirit of water for its agricultural achievements.
The festival came on the heels of King Sihanouk's 73rd birthday on Oct 31, and celebrations
continued through National Day on Nov 9. It also coincided with two other festivals:
Ok Ambok, or the Pounding of Rice, held to pay respect to the creator, the God of
Moon. and Sampeah Preah Khe, the Prayers to the Full Moon, held to predict the rains
in next year.
King Sihanouk's fortune teller predicted there will be enough rain water for crops
in the next year.