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Fun, fanfare and not a sore loser in sight...

Fun, fanfare and not a sore loser in sight...

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

ever seen.

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

Chea Kien.

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

Mekong river.

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.

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