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
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