Hang Leang and his rag-tag racing crew squatted under an umbrella tree at the riverside Monday morning, wondering where they would sleep.
After 26 hours on the slow boat from Battambang, they had just arrived in the capital with a few thousand riel in their pockets and not much else.
Their gaily painted boat floated nearby, tethered in the fast-moving waters of the Tonle Sap. The crew, one of an estimated 400 signed up for this year’s Water Festival, is made up of farmers from Prek Narin village in Battambang province.
Their area was hard-hit by floods this year. The rice crop was ruined. Some of the men have no savings at all, and aren’t sure how they’ll get by while they’re in Phnom Penh.
But it’s worth it, said Hang Leang, 43.
“We come here with happiness, despite the fact that the floods destroyed our crops, because we will represent our province” in the races, he said.
Despite the flooding, this year’s races are attracting more boats than last year’s 373 entries. One boat will be manned by a crew from Burma, organizers said.
The men of Prek Narin were pleased to hear that this year the Coca-Cola Company is sponsoring the Water Festival through its subsidiary, the Cambodia Beverage Co Ltd.
Denise Lauwens, general manager of the CBC, said the bottler will donate 10 million riel ($2,500) to festival organizers, as well as sponsor 50 boats and provide free Cokes to all 25,000 competitors.
The boats will not be plastered with the Coca-Cola logo, or shaped like giant Coke bottles, or anything like that, according to Lauwens. Crews will simply wear red Coke T-shirts and white caps, she said.
The company is spending more than $20,000 on the event, although Lauwens would not say exactly how much. She said some of it will finance a Coca-Cola barge, to be anchored near the finish line.
The CBC cash donation works out to $51 per boat, or something less than $1 per sponsored competitor. But add to that free caps and T-shirts, and the deal looks pretty good to the men of Prek Narin.
“Nobody in Battambang is sponsoring us,” Hang Leang said. “We’re not even sure if we will have T-shirts to race in.”
The 69-man crew does have yellow baseball caps emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower logo of Bonjour Cigarettes. And provincial authorities have allocated the crew a kilo of rice per man per day, as well as 5,000 riel daily, he said.
A committee headed by Bou Chum Serey, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Education, chose the boats for Coke to sponsor.
Soun Sarin, 57, of Kandal province, is a racer in one of those boats chosen.
He said his boat being chosen as a Coke boat makes him think that his team “will be luckier than in previous years.”
While nobody will go hungry and the city has promised all competitors a place to sleep at area schools, the poorest of Hang Leang’s crew members have no pocket money with which to enjoy the Water Festival.
They said Monday they don’t care, they just want a chance to win. They tasted victory in regional competitions Oct 28 and 29 in Battambang, when each boat won 100,000 riel ($25) and each oarsman got a new sarong.
This year, due to the flooding, few family members will be able to afford the trip to Phnom Penh to cheer on their husbands and brothers. The racers themselves had a hard enough time getting here.
“It’s very difficult to come, but it’s necessary to come,” Hang Neang said.
This will be the fourth time the boat, from the Ek Raingsei pagoda, has competed since 1991, and they want to go home with honors, he said.