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A painter dabs black paint onto a longboat in Peam village, Kandal province
A painter dabs black paint onto a longboat in Peam village, Kandal province. Charlotte Pert

Meet the fanatical boatmen of Water Festival

When heavy rains come, the Mekong bursts its banks and floods the grounds of Keo Mony Chout pagoda in Kandal province. Some days the water arrives at the foot of the boathouse where a wooden longboat named Oudom Mongkol Tevoreak Moha Sen Chey has sat gathering dust for the past four years.

But not a drop has soaked through: someone is always waiting to make sure she is propped up out of harm’s way.

“I was born to be with boats,” said Om Saron, the 77-year-old former monk and director of the pagoda’s Water Festival boat committee.

“Because I love boats, I can take care of them,” he added. Oudom Mongkol Tevoreak Moha Sen Chey, which was built in 2003 at a cost of $6,000 and named after a venerable monk, is a very well-looked after boat – and especially so this week, as she prepared to set sail from Peam village to Phnom Penh for the first time since 2010.

As Saron looked on, a team of painters polished the paintwork, embellishing her sides with Angkorian motifs and fluorescent stripes – yellow for honesty, green for happiness, pink for courage and gold for power. Two long locks of brown plastic hair hung down from either side of “the head”. At one end, candles burned and cakes and soda cans were balanced as part of the blessing ceremony. An Apsara dancer stretched out, a glittering diamond in her palm. “She is the one who takes care of the boat,” explained Saron.

Three of the boat committee at a pagoda in Peam village, Kandal province. Nov Heng is at the fron
Three of the boat committee at a pagoda in Peam village, Kandal province. Nov Heng is at the front. Charlotte Pert

It’s Saron’s job to organise the team, and he takes great pride in it. In his bag he carries a written history of the festival, which started as a celebration of King Jayavarman VII’s 12th century naval victory against the invading Cham empire.

This week, he and a crowd of villagers were raring to go. “We have done the preparation – we have clothes, hats and food for the journey and now we are waiting for the ceremony to come,” he said.

This year is the first time the festival has gone ahead since 2010. That year, a stampede killed more than 350 revellers and subsequent cancellations were blamed on flooding and the death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

About 200 boats are expected to take to the river outside the Royal Palace on November 5, 6 and 7, according to Nhean Phoeun, a member of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals. All over the country, teams like Saron’s are preparing.

At Peam Monkol pagoda, across the bridge from Keo Mony Chout, a group of shirtless boys put the final touches on another boat, propped up on planks of wood between two columns of coconut palms. Three elderly men watched on a bench nearby.

“It is important to paint in Angkorian-style with different colours,” said Suon Som, the 65-year-old director of the pagoda’s boat committee. “Most boats are designed like this because the origin of the festival started from Angkor period,” he added.

Next to him sat deputy directors Nov Heng and Sok Sakorn. The three are former teammates, and in the habit of finishing each others’ sentences. When asked about the first time they rowed together, each shouted out a different year before settling on 1997.

Om Saron, the 77-year-old director of Keo Mony Chout pagoda’s boat committee
Om Saron, the 77-year-old director of Keo Mony Chout pagoda’s boat committee. Charlotte Pert

They were among the winners of the race, even though they had only 22 rowers – some boats can seat up to 50 – and enjoyed many years more success before retiring to sit on the committee.

Under their watch, the team has seen more glory, winning six of the eight races they have entered since 2003.

The rowers take home 30,000 riel for first place. “It’s not a lot but we were happy to represent our Khmer nationality to the country and people outside,” Heng said. “I am only 80 per cent sure we will win this year, because we haven’t joined for three years so we need to restart with new people, techniques, skills and capacity, and our boat only seats 32 people.” Nonetheless, he continued, “they are young people, full of power, who join the race”.

Once there, the team abides to a strict schedule: “During the three days of racing, the team needs to respect the committee rules.” That means no drinking or wander-ing off without informing the others.

Among the best rowers in the village, sailing with the other pagoda, is Yorn Sithan, known as “Mab”. The stocky man in his early thirties has rowed 14 times.

“The reason I joined is so I can keep this tradition for the next generation and represent my village, pagoda and country as a whole,” he said.

He’s only been on the winning team once. “As my experience, I used to row the short boat and we won on the last day and we were surprised,” he said.

At work painting one of the boats
At work painting one of the boats. Charlotte Pert

“Sometimes I was worried about falling into the water – we needed to be careful all the time,” he said.

Mab spends most of the year in another province working in a garment factory, returning only a couple of times a year.

“When the Water Festival is celebrated, I always join to cheer my village,” he said. “I felt sad when we didn’t celebrate, but so excited when they announced it would be celebrated this year.”

Standing at the front of the boat will be a dancer employed to keep up the team’s spirits.

“There are many different dancing styles that we learned from our ancestors,” explained 74-year-old dance teacher Cheuun Mol, stretching out his arms and flapping them like the wings of a bird.

“Even though we see a lot of people, dancers never feel shy because we need to perform as much as we can,” he said.

Boat committee director Saron will be watching from the sidelines. He can pick out his team by their salmon-pink uniforms.

He’s quietly confident about their chances because painted on the boat is a winning secret: a Khmer number one. “I can say we will get number one this year,” he said, a wide grin spreading across his face.

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