SIEM REAP CITY – By 8 a.m. on Tuesday, ornately decorated boats were already gliding down the Siem Reap River while other paddlers lounged on its shaded banks in preparation for the races at the center of this year’s biggest Water Festival celebration.
Oeun Sao, 20, a paddler in the Hanuman Senchey Baramey Srey Kroup Leak boat from Banteay Meanchey province, said his team began practicing only a few days ago.
“We arrived yesterday,” he said. “We have been preparing on the river in our province. We have been practicing two times a day, in the morning and evening, for the past week.”
The festival, which marks the annual reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river, was canceled in Phnom Penh for the fourth time in five years, with the government citing low water levels and the need to focus resources on drought-stricken farmers. But the boat races have gone ahead during celebrations in provinces such as Battambang and Svay Rieng over the past month.
In Siem Reap, authorities dammed the river near a crocodile farm upstream from the city earlier this month to raise the water level, according to Liv Sokhean, one of the festival’s local organizers.
Mr. Sokhean said the cancellation of the festival in Phnom Penh, which can draw more than a million people to the capital, had little impact on events in Siem Reap. Only two or three boats that would have otherwise competed in Phnom Penh had signed up for the races up north, he said.
One of the regular competitors in Siem Reap is Pen Kat, a 58-year-old fisherman and captain of the Koh Keo Pichey Baramey Prapi Por.
“I have raced five times [in Siem Reap]. I used to do it when I was younger, but now I am the supervisor,” he said as his team, in matching yellow shirts, played cards and smoked cigarettes by the river.
In order to find a team of paddlers to fill his 10-year-old Koki-wood boat, Mr. Kat recently embarked on a recruitment drive around fishing communities in the vicinity of Prasat Bakorng district, as many members of his crew from last year had left to find work abroad.
“The previous team went to work in other countries like Thailand in construction and some in agriculture,” he said.
“When the new generation goes to find jobs in other countries, it’s hard to find new candidates. We have to visit other districts and villages to recruit people for the team.”
As crowds swelled and anticipation grew for the races on Tuesday afternoon, the crew of the Hanuman Senchey Baramey Srey Kroup Leak blessed their vessel with water and incense before lowering it into the muddy river. The sounds of Buddhist chanting and the ancient two-stringed tro mixed with techno music blasting from stalls closer to the starting line.
The races began at 3 p.m., with 30 teams battling it out in head-to-head sprints for a place in today’s finals. Each pair raced twice in the first round, switching lanes for the second race, the winner moving on to the next round. Only one match-up required a third run, after the teams split the first two races.
The afternoon was not spared of drama, with two boats—F.C.C. and Rokhark Dekchas Senchey —sinking in the first round and leaving their crews swimming for the riverbank. A boat sponsored by the Shinta Mani Hotel sent a line judge plunging into the water after crashing into his station at the finish line.
Mr. Kat’s hastily assembled crew was comfortably beaten by local rivals Siem Reap Krong Morokot Angkor in their race. But the fisherman vowed to bring his boat back to the Water Festival next year.
“I will return to the boat races again on behalf of the Cambodians who live in our Khmer Angkor land,” he declared.
“We will stay together, and I promise we will win next year because we will practice more and repair our boat.”