Prek Takong residents hope their work on a former championship-winning boat will pay off when race time comes around at this weekend’s Water Festival.
The colorful boat helps raise popularity, and the strong body of the boat helps it move faster.
Like a thoroughbred horse, a winning Water Festival boat is a prized possession.
Mangkal Sanchey Serey Mean Rith, the boat that will represent Russey Keo’s Prek Takong commune in the Water Festival, has a shiny new paint job for the races this weekend – and the soul of an old champion.
The boat’s captain, Som Sophal, said monks of Phnom Penh’s Prek Takong pagoda, along with their faithful, bought the long wooden boat, or touk ngo, for $500 from boat racers in Kampong Thom province in 2004.
“Before we bought this boat, it had already been the champion of the Water Festival two times,” he said.
Som Sophal’s squad repeated the feat three times in the veteran vessel, from 2005-07, and they continue to give the boat a victor’s treatment when the annual competition rolls around.
The boat is stored in the Prek Takong pagoda, the only indoor space in the area that can house a boat which seats 54 men. Then, a few weeks before the Water Festival, the makeover begins. Racers spend days repainting and repairing the boat.
At the pagoda last week, men lay down fresh layers of bright paint while others composed intricate designs on the boat’s hull. Som Sophal checked the boat for leaks, warping or damage that might slow them down.
“The colourful boat helps raise popularity, and the strong body of the boat helps it move faster,” Sam Sophal said.
He said he planned to get in some practice in the three days leading up to the competition Sunday.
“We sometimes load only 53 people in our boat,” he said. “Less is better than an overloaded one because the lighter boat can move faster.”
Most of the touk ngo in the Water Festival are made from two koki trees joined together to form the long hull.But the Mangkal Sanchey Serey Mean Rith is made from a less-expensive timber, sokrom.
However, many say it is really the rowers who make the difference.
“People who row the boat are very important. They have to be strong and experienced,” Sam Sophal said.
He said he never allows anyone younger than 20 to join in his team because they are easily exhausted.
When the boat is launched, villagers and Buddhist monks gather for a ceremony, dedicating food and religious items to their ancestors, as the monks pray for the racers.
“Blessing from monks will make us more confident, so we won’t be scared of our competitors,” Sam Sophal said.
While some crews put stock in spirits or supernatural protectors of the boat, Sam Sophal says he doesn’t believe in such forces.
He just hopes the prayer will bring confidence to his racers.
Despite past triumphs, Sam Sophal says he is not confident of his team’s chances in this year’s race.
So if the monk’s prayers don’t do the trick, at least his team members know they are racing a thoroughbred.