It started as a war. The great Angkorian king Jayavarman VII led his naval fleet
against the Chams invading the Khmer empire. He defeated them in 1178 and set the
stage, nearly a thousand years later, for Cambodia's annual Water Festival.
The Athareach Chakrapop Ramsei and its crew return upriver after a race.
"Bon Om Tuk [the Water Festival] demonstrates the power of the navy of King
Jayavarman VII," said Chey Sann, 66, at the races held in 1992. "During
the first two days, the troops are sent out to test the enemy's strength, then on
the last day, they fight for victory."
This year marks the 13th anniversary of the Water Festival since the tradition was
revived in 1990 after a 20-year hiatus. The event stopped after the coup d'etat by
Lon Nol toppled King Norodom Sihanouk in 1970.
Between 1983 and 1989, the city of Phnom Penh held boat races along the capital's
waterfront. But it was only a year later that it became a national affair.
In one of first Water Festivals following the arrival of UNTAC in 1992, more than
200 boats and "thousands and thousands" of spectators turned out.
This year, the Water Festival promises to be the largest ever. Government officials
speculated it could attract as many as 2 million people to the capital.
Appropriately for an event featuring a national test of wills, the Water Festival
has historically mirrored the country's politics.
Each year, wealthy patrons from the major political parties, as well as government
bodies, sponsor boats to compete in the races.
In 1994, Siem Reap hosted the first races held next to Angkor Wat in nearly 30 years.
The event, threatened by Khmer Rouge who still terrorized the area, was presided
over by Prince Ranariddh and his wife Princess Marie.
Ranariddh sponsored four boats in the races, all of which lost. One was beaten by
a boat supported by Ranariddh's coalition government partner at the time, Hun Sen.
He complained that the race was unfair because Hun Sen's boat carried more rowers.
"It is not necessary that the Prime Minister's boat must win," said Ranariddh.
Later, in 1998, when then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen fell ill during the Water
Festival, the Cambodian People's Party held their own race for the party elite.
Hun Sen compared the boat races to the July election of 1998. He said the racers
and politicians who complained about the results because they did not know the rules
However, the outcome of the national Water Festival races in 1998 might be prophetic
In 1998, a boat sponsored by the National Assembly, the Srey Sar Sa Ath, or White-skinned
Beautiful Woman, was knocked out of the competition early. The crew blamed a lack
of support because the government had not yet formed after the election.
Eng Sok, a member on the boat committee, said the government body had only donated
$300 and 600 kg of rice. He said it was not enough to sustain a winning team. This
year, another boat sponsored by the National Assembly will race again.