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Takeo's 'masters' of the Tonle Sap

Takeo's 'masters' of the Tonle Sap

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The Kirivong Sok Senchey vies for an 11th-straight win

Photo by: Heng Chivoan

A vendor sells snacks along the Phnom Penh riverfront Wednesday as thousands flocked to watch dragon boats race on the second day of the Water Festival.

WATER FESTIVAL
Today’s schedule

  • 11am to 5pm: Boats begin competing in final day of races
  • 4pm: Royal family members arrive at the main riverfront stage, along with parliamentarians and other government officials
  • 4:15pm: Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives
  • 4:30pm: King Norodom Sihamoni arrives at the main stage to present awards to the winning dragon boats
  • 6:30pm: A grand finale of fireworks will commence, accompanied by the lighted barges

Boat number 356, the Kirivong Sok Senchey from Takeo province, has routed all comers in a decadelong win streak that marks it as the crew to beat during this year's Bon Om Tuk boat races.

Some 434 crews from across Cambodia have converged on Phnom Penh's Tonle Sap river to contest this year's Water Festival races, vying for cash prizes and, more importantly, bragging rights for themselves and their province.

The Kirivong crew have trained hard all morning. Their bodies are sweat-soaked and sore, but their attitude is predictably confident, even cocky.

"Nobody wants to compete with our boat," said Oum Chhun Streng, manager of the Kirivong crew.

The only boat that dares

[compete with us] ... is supported

by prime minister hun sen, so

of course they feel strong.

"The only boat that dares is the Preah Phearon Sen Techeas, and that boat is supported by Prime Minister Hun Sen, so of course they feel strong."

The Kirivong was built in the forest-rich Preah Vihear province, as Takeo lacks the necessary timber. It took one month to build and cost US$7,000.

To the uninitiated, the Kirivong resembles just about every other boat on the water, but for the men who have powered it to victory over a ten-year stretch.

It runs 33.8 metres in length and holds a crew of 75 able-bodied Takeo rowers, who can propel it some 1,700 metres in four minutes. Manager Oum Chhun Streng calls it "the fastest boat on the river".

And despite his light mockery of Hun Sen's crew, Oum Chhun Streng and his crew also owe a debt to friends in high places. The Kirivong bears part of the name of Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who has also donated 120 kilograms of beef to feed the crew through the three days of racing.

The crew trained twice a day for two weeks in the lead-up to this year's race, and while in the capital they will sleep on the boat - a small price to pay for a chance to compete.

Crewman Soy Pormen, 42, said rowing comes as easy to him as breathing.

"Rowing is not difficult for me because I have done it for so many years. I get 3,000 riels (US$0.75) per day for coming to row here," he said.

"I must come to race in Phnom Penh because it is an old tradition that happens only once a year," he said.

It is tradition, in the end, that drives the Kirivong crew, as much as the glory of winning.

"It is very important for us to follow our old traditions," he said.

Officials estimate that as many as four million visitors will swell the streets and riverbanks of Phnom Penh during this year's celebrations.

But winning has become a tradition in itself for the Kirivong, and a strong source of pride that Soy Pormen hopes to reaffirm this year for the city's potentially millions of spectators.

"The Water Festival is a great chance for people to come together from all around Cambodia. We must try very hard to keep our No 1 place in the festival. It is a source of great pride for our province," he said.

{gallery}news/national/081113/WF{/gallery}

From left: Fireworks light up the sky over the Royal Palace; a Hello mobile network promoter drums up support; boat racers prepare for their heat; a coxswain shoulders a symbolic axe used to fire up his team during races; visitors watch racing from the bank of the Tonle Sap. Heng Chivoan, Tracey Shelton, AFP

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