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Spirit and tradition of the sisters of rowing

Spirit and tradition of the sisters of rowing

W hile the men may get most of the limelight, the annual boat races are also very

much a female affair. Kayte Deioma joins the women on the water.

Srey Sros Mien Chey (Beautiful Victorious Women), Saray Popok Rosath (Drifting Seaweed

Clouds), Thep Thida Mien Rith (Powerful Angel), Runtheah Sosaing (Lightning and Thunder)

and Runtheah Pich Kdam Prai (Lightning Diamond Salty Crabs) - strong and beautiful

names handed down over the years to strong and beautiful women with a mission.

Srey Sros Mien Chey were looking forward to a rematch with rival Mudfish after Mudfish

cut them off during last year's race. But Mudfish was a no show at this year's women's

boat races at the three-day Water Festival on the Tonle Sap River.

"I want to win, I want to have a good time and I want to participate in the

cultural tradition" says Chieng Lieng of Srey Sros Mien Chey, echoing the feelings

of fellow rowers.

The competitive spirit has been growing since the first two women's teams competed

when the national water festival was restarted in 1990.

"I like to row because I want to beat the other teams," says Im Kimeng

of Pich Krapum Rattanakh Mien Chey, from Khum Kohdach in Kandal. Sponsored by the

Ministry of Defense, the team is more competitive than most, having built up a string

of wins in the races held by the City of Phnom Penh from 1983 to 1989 and maintaining

that winning streak in last year's national festival.

"We are number one!" declares team captain Mao Chei over breakfast at the

team's improvised quarters at Wat Phnom High School before the second day of races.

" We win every year."

This year ten women's boats competed in the standing position and four rowed in the

seated position traditionally favored by the men. "In the past, men rowed into

war to fight from a seated position," explained Peou Kamarin, the male captain

for Srey Sros Mien Chey. "Women rowed supply boats with all of the food for

the men. There was no room to sit so they rowed standing."

"It used to be men sitting and women standing, but times have changed,"

says Chea Kean, of the Commission for National and International Events which helps

organize the festival. "Now women play basketball, fly planes and can be soldiers,

so they have the right to row any way they want."

While they are technically women's teams - racing in their own heats separately from

men's teams - in reality they are usually mixed teams. Some villages send just a

men's team, or a women's, or alternate between men and women's teams in each. Each

women's team usually has a couple of men at least.

"Our village is small and we have only one boat," says Keo Vat, male leader

of Runtheah Pich Kdam Prey from Kompong Chhnang. "We chose to send the women's

team because they have a strong spirit and good character."

Ten men from the village row as part of the team, and it's a family affair. Keo's

daughter, Sambo, is the dancer for the team at the front of the boat. "It's

very important to have both men and women compete," says Vat, "especially

the women. We teach all of our children to row." Noeu Moeun and her son Noeu

Siam also row as part of the Salty Crabs. "I have a clear spirit to row with

my son," says the mother. "We have the same skill."

Other parents also encourage their children to participate with them. "It's

very important for me to pass the tradition on to my children," says Chieng

Lieng of Srey Sros Mien Chey. "I want my children to know about Cambodian culture.

I am an athletic person and I want my children to develop the same values and culture."

Chieng's 18-year-old daughter dances for the team's boat. The male boat captain,

Peou Kamarin, has his sister as one of the rowers.

"All of the women's teams have at least one man to steer because you have to

be very strong and the women are not strong enough," says Chea Kean. "The

limit is ten men on a women's boat, but this year I know some of them had more. That's

really cheating."

Most of the women are also convinced that they are not strong enough to steer the

boat, but it's a different matter when it comes to racing against men. "Women

can't race against men. It's not permitted," says Mao Chei, leader of Pich Krapum

Rattanakh. "But I would like to try!" she laughs with a sideways glance

at the male team members.

The 36 women of Srey Sros Mien Chey from Pumchong Koh village, on Koh Duth island

in the Mekong just across from Phnom Penh, approach the race with purpose. "I

look forward to the boat race every year." says captain Sang Thach. "I

want to win, but I also want to see my own potential in the race. I want to show

that our village can win and show that women have great potential and physical strength."

"Our team members are very athletic," explained Sang, "They have to

be able to swim, be healthy, know how to row the boat and have the spiritual strength

to compete in the boat race."

"We practice every day for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening,"

added team member Ong Chantou. "We are weavers in our village and our arms are

strong from the looms." In Pumchong Koh, three or four looms are set up under

each house, operated by the men, women and children of the family.

"The boat races are a cultural tradition, just like our weaving," says

Pal Sokum. "It has been a tradition longer than any of us can remember."

The water festival is not just an opportunity for fun and competition. The boat races,

and the earlier change in the direction of the current of the Tonle Sap which foreshadows

them, play a ritual role in the lives of the women and their families.

"Water is very important in our lives," says Pal Sokum. "Water makes

the crops grow, but the floods can ruin the crops."

"When the village floods, we have to move all the weaving looms up into the

house until the water goes down, and we have to put all the livestock in the temple

so they don't drown," says Ong Chanthou.

"When the current turns around it is a good sign. We're very happy when the

water changes," says Sokum. "We have a ceremony when the rain stops. In

that ceremony each village makes a small boat with candles and we float them on the


While most of the women's teams stay in Phnom Penh for the three days of the races,

the ladies of Srey Sros Mien Chey head back to their island in the Mekong each evening,

leaving the school quarters for those traveling from far away. Every morning before

racing, the team practices from 6:00 to 8:30. "Before we put the boat in the

water, we pray and play music to keep the old customs," says Chanthou.

The first two days of the races, the team headed back to the island disappointed,

having lost to faster boats and stronger rowers. "Our boat is an old one, says

Sang Thach. "We competed with a fast new boat from Kompong Chhnang on the first


"We were disappointed because we tried our best but we weren't strong enough

to beat our competitors," says Ong. "We only lost by a small margin."

On the second night, Srey Sros Mien Chey held a ceremony at their temple and prepared

a special meal to bring them strength and luck. "After we lost two days, we

thought about what we did wrong and what was wrong with the boat, why we lost and

we tried to improve," says Thach. "We adjusted the tension in the boat

to make it faster. We are all committed to win, the weak and the strong. The weaker

rowers have to row harder."

"We were hesitant at first because we didn't know if we could win," says

Mien Kung. "But we tried our best. Our dancer was very good and we tried together

and we finally won [their race on the third day]."

"We put in our best effort with all our strength," says Sang sharing the

hard-won beer, rice wine, condensed milk and krama among her rowers, "But I

was surprised and happy that we actually won."

Preah Pey Srop, the fast boat from Kampong Chnang who beat Srey Sros on the first

day, went on to share first place in the third day's races with Saray Popok Rosath

from Kampong Cham.

The first ranked team from the Ministry of Defense who had been so confident was

not so fortunate, for they proceeded to lose the last two days of races, sharing

third place with two other teams.

Srey Sros Mien Chey are already talking strategy for next year, maybe even a new

fast boat if they can raise the money. But it is the inner strength that motivates

these women. "We push the women to go out there and participate in the sport,"

says Chieng Lieng, "so the men will see we have the strength to compete in every



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