hen Mok Chhan sits in his racing boat, he is no longer a farmer, but a 12th century naval soldier cutting through the waters of the Tonle Sap in a fight for the Khmer Empire.
“I race to remember the old tradition,” said Mok Chhan, sitting inside a temple in Rathanak Bopharam pagoda in Kandal province. “In the 12th century, the king went to war against invaders who wanted to take the Cambodian empire. It wasn’t because of foot soldiers that we won that battle. It was the navy.”
Tradition, not victory, guides the more than 1,000 competitors expected to take part in three days of boat races in this year’s Water Festival. There is no overall winner in the race; instead, victors from several races that separate the 312 boats schedule to compete this year.
“We have organized the ceremony for tradition and religion, not for sport,” said Chea Kean, director of the Permanent Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals. “It is very important to have boat racing because it is a part of the traditional identity of the nation…. This is a royal ceremony that must be maintained forever.”
Historians say some form of the Water Festival was celebrated before the 12th century. But boat racers today take their inspiration from a pair of phyrric naval victories from the 12th and 16th centuries, historian Choy Yiheang said.
A land invasion of Cambodia by Champa in 1277 was followed by a naval attack in 1278, historian David Chandler wrote in his book, “A History of Cambodia.” King Jayavaraman VII responded to the raid with a fierce naval defense that drove back the Chams.
The navy’s legendary reputation grew again after a 16th century victory against Siam, where the water-bound forces again played a crucial role, Choy Yiheang said.
“Navies were very important in both times,” Choy Yieheang. “The boats were the vanguard of the war.”
Today, those victories are celebrated when about 40 racers man slender 30-meter longboats crafted in the ancient model and adorned with ornate designs and sleek colors. Slender oars cut through the water as racers push to the finish line.
Races begin at the Japanese Bridge and wind their way 1,700 meters to the shores in front of the royal palace.
National and traditional pride—as well as a chance at prizes and prestige—boil over into a desire to win. Chi Siphon, the chief of the boat dubbed Don Penh Sen Chey (Don Penh Always Successful) is looking for redemption from last year, when his boat was broke in two after colliding with the Naga Floating Casino.
“Even if I was sick I would join my team,” Chi Siphon said. “I hope my boat will be a winner among the many races. It is very fast, and I hope there will be no problems this year.”
Victors do get some spoils. First-place winners receive 500,000 riel, second-place receives 400,000 riel, third place gets 300,000 riel and fourth place gets 250,000 riel.
Mok Chhan, however, shrugs off prizes. “When I am in the boat, sitting in the water and I hear the people cheering, that is the best thing,” he said.
Boaters employ superstition, tradition and personal tips to guide boats to vitory. Chea Chipor, captain for Bopha Reach Theany boat of Brachum Sakor pagoda in the city’s Russei Keo District, had a set of simple rules: choose a good water stream, beware of whirlpools, respect the captain, don’t let women touch the boat, choose strong men and pray at the pagoda before moving the boat to the river.
“If we can respect those rules, I am very hopeful we can win,” Chi Chipor said.
Mok Chhan’s team changes its diet the weeks before the race, increasing the amount of rice, oranges and Kratingdaeng 250 energy drink—in the short gold can with red charging bulls—to give them a boost come race day. Forty boaters will power Machul Mech (Diamond Needle), but over several days 60 team members will practice in order to fight the right combination, Mok Chhan said.
For Mok Chhan, the right wood, a good place to sleep and trust between team members is the difference between success and failure. His team will also sing and dance around the boat as it is being lowered into the river.
The economic crunch and provincial dought has hurt boat fund-raising as well as organizer’s efforts to inject more tradition into the event. Chea Kean had hoped to get more racers to wear traditional outfits while racing, but admitted boaters who found corporate sponsors would wear shirts with company logos.
Chea Chipor said he got sponsorship last year from CPP President Chea Sim, but didn’t expect a sponsor this year. Mok Chhan said team members went door-to-door in their villages to raise funds after the district chief said he didn’t have money to give for this year’s boat. Because of the bad farm season, few villagers had any money to spare, he said.
Two weeks before the race, his group still needed $80 for boat repairs.
(Reporting by Kay Kimsong, Chris Seper and Van Roeun)