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Paddling upstream

ShannonDunlap

This week our sassy columnist discovers what it takes to be a Water Festival champion.

It all happened very quickly. One moment, I was sauntering idly by the Siem Reap river among the crowd of bystanders gathered to watch a few racing boats practice for the upcoming Water Festival. The next, I was being eagerly led through ankle-high mud by a smiling stranger who was urging me to take his place in the FCC’s sleek racer, the Hanuman .

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this column, it’s that most of the time it’s better to just swim with the prevailing current. So I climbed in and accepted a paddle from one of my amused fellow rowers. Somnang, the man who had offered me his seat, waved happily from the bank, seemingly pleased with this unexpected cigarette break. We disembarked before I had much chance to contemplate my boyfriend’s nervous, shouted warnings about not throwing my back out.

The trip upstream to the bridge had the rhythmic tranquillity of a leisurely canoe ride. With a few sidelong glances at my boat mates, I gathered the correct way to grasp the slender paddle, and with our synchronised movements, the FCC Hanuman cut through the waves like a hot knife through butter. In a span of seconds, I felt like I was part of the team, united with strangers in the pursuit of a common goal, and I understood as never before why the racing boats are powerful symbols of historical Khmer naval victories.

But all that was just to get positioned at the starting line.

The actual practice run began when we steered the boat in a 180-degree turn and began to paddle frantically with the current. Later, Somnang’s brother Ra explained that I had secured a fairly easy position near the front of the boat where at least I could stay seated, unlike the muscled guys at the back who have to stand up and row mightily. But in the moment, my situation felt anything but comfortable. The water roiled around us, there were whistle blows and collective grunts that I couldn’t comprehend, and then suddenly my entire field of vision was taken up by the adrenaline-fuelled whirlwind of limbs and paddles surrounding me.

Timing my movements with the frenzied strokes of the man in front of me took fierce concentration, and I faltered clumsily. What’s worse, it took me some time to get the angle of the oar correct, and consequently, the current occasionally seized the edge of my paddle like some furious sea monster, dragging it under and sending great plumes of river water over me and anyone seated near me. Thankfully, the drenched man sitting behind me seemed to find my ineptitude funny rather than irritating, and when the boat finally slowed, he gave me a dripping thumbs-up.

We steered back to the shore, and suddenly I was back on the riverbank, soaked and still dazed by my whiplash turn as a racer. I think my amateurish flailing hindered our time rather than helped it, but Team FCC was gracious nonetheless, and Somnang, cigarette still dangling from his lower lip, insisted on a quick photograph before resuming his rightful place in the boat.

I stood by the river for a while and watched the real racers continue to practice. Despite the exhaustion dragging at my arms, there was a small part of me that wished I was still out there on the boat, riding the waves of Siem Reap.

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