In Thmor Kor, outside Phnom Penh, the cancellation of this year’s Water Festival is a big disappointment. Though some concede it was justified
On the shady grounds of the pagoda in Thmor Kor village in Kandal province, two 23-metre boats this week rested under cover, protected from the elements.
One is a relic of the 1970s, evidence of the village boat committee’s long history of participation in the annual Water Festival races in Phnom Penh.
The other, decked with traditional ornaments on the bow and a fresh coat of red paint, was set to put 53 racers from the village on the Tonle Sap during this month’s festivities.
However, this year, the boat’s bow is set to remain dry.
Thmor Kor is just one of a number of villages that had begun preparations for the Water Festival boat races, which were set to begin in Phnom Penh on November 24.
The events were called off last month — the fourth time since 2010, when a stampede killed 353 people — with a government directive citing low water levels due to drought.
“This year, we prepared the documents and the team in order to join the festival, but when we found out there was no boat race, we separated,” Oung Chamreun, one of the leaders of the village boat committee, said.
This time last year, the boat racers — all volunteers — spent their days together, training for the race and building morale. But now they have instead returned to their jobs, many of them in the fields.
“It was cancelled this year again, so we all went back to work: as farmers, construction workers, garment workers, students and so on,” said Chen Vanly, one of the boatmen.
Chamreun discovered the events were cancelled on Facebook, negating weeks of initial preparation and two days of race training.
Aside from the 53 racers and the boat, Thmor Kor had planned to send 10 substitutes and five committee members to Phnom Penh.
In October, the committee organised and registered the team with the Department of Culture and Fine Arts, repainted the boat and plugged its leaks.
The entire process took about a month and cost $500, much of it raised from visitors to the pagoda, according to Chamreun.
Despite suggestions that the cancellations were politically motivated, Chamreun and the racers said the water levels could have made the boat races a gamble this year.
Chamreun explained that in Phnom Penh the boats are larger and the race much longer — 1,700 metres — and that with a slow current the vessels wouldn’t be able to move as designed.
For the Thmor Kor village boatmen, the boat race cancellation is a loss not only for their team, but for the sense of community it engendered.
“There are important things that push us to join the festival,” said Phan Yat, a 54-year-old veteran. “It is a part of Khmer culture that has been celebrated for a long time and that we don’t want to lose.”
Long Sokal, 35
I’ve been a boatman since the boat was built in 1994. I wanted to help my village get fame through the boat race, and it made me so happy to meet the other boat racers in one place. When I heard that there was no Water Festival this year — as well as a few years ago — I regretted that I couldn’t go to the city and take part. When we went to Phnom Penh with the team, we met teams from different places. For three days we all sung and danced together after the boat racing finished — win or lose.
Phan Yat, 54
I am a farmer and a construction worker in this village. When I heard there was no Water Festival this year, I was filled with regret. I am disappointed that we will not have it this year. I know it is hard to race during the lower water, but if they celebrated the festival, we would still join. I was happy when we met each other during the three days, because we are all Khmer and we had such a big family in town. Although we were tired, we had the passion and motivation — especially when there were more supporters.
Chen Vanly, 33
I became a boatman 15 years ago, and I always participated in the Water Festival in Phnom Penh because it’s a cultural ceremony, and it’s a happy time when we’re on the boat. When we we’re on the boat, we always tell each other to keep solidarity because we are all Khmer. When I heard the boat race was cancelled I was sad, because we can’t go to the race and enjoy it. I accept that his year the water is lower than before, but if there were a boat race, we still would love to join as normal. I still want to be a boatman in the future, until I’m too old to row the boat.