On the boat, some bring power. Others bring style.
With all but 42 crews going into Friday’s final day of Water Festival boat racing with no chance of being champion, it was time for non-rowing team members—through their music and moves—to shine.
“It’s not just about fast, it’s also about style,” said Lor Thoura, a Ministry of Tourism official who was disseminating race schedules and explaining the boat races to tourists.
“Some teams have already lost, so they just need to concentrate on looking good.”
Most of the 245 boats that entered this year’s races, which each have dozens of rowers, also carry three people whose chief tool is not an oar. In general, one bangs a giant drum to set a pace for the rowers’ strokes; a second screams slogans through a megaphone; and a third stands on the boat’s skinny bow, posing, dancing or gesticulating in various ways.
This third non-rowing member, in particular, gave spectators something to look at as the boats streamed back and forth down the Tonle Sap on Friday.
“He dances there better than most dance on their best day,” said Sam Janek, a 26-year-old Australian vacationer.
Standing on a tiny area on the front of the boat, the man evoked the style of Apsara dancers while using his full wingspan to depict a stream of energy running from the tips of one hand to the other.
“I don’t know what is going on, but that is something you don’t see every day,” Mr. Janek said.
From Bokator fighters to samurai impersonators and women dancing Apsara, the bows of the boats were home to all sorts of entertainers during the races.
And the boats aren’t carrying deadweight just for show.
“If I don’t dance, the boat can’t move,” said Im Kruoy, a 25-year-old hype-man for the Neak Khiev Mean Chey boat from Phnom Penh.
Mr. Kruoy is missing his two front teeth. His crew calls him Dracula.
“My actions give the energy to my teammates. It scares them into action,” he said, demonstrating his moves, arms overhead, swinging at the hips—a style all his own.
Mr. Krouy’s boat won its races on two of three days this week.
The Bati So Sok Sen Chey, from Takeo province, however, went undefeated. Sim Veoun, the 54-year-old captain of that boat, explained how his amplified urgings were crucial to his team finishing among the 21 unbeaten teams.
He said that as the festival wears on and the rowers become increasingly fatigued, his job becomes ever more crucial.
“They get tired, I am not,” he said. “When we get close to the finish line, my orders become stronger. Faster, faster, faster,” Mr. Veoun said, screaming through his bullhorn from less than a meter away to demonstrate.
The drums, also, are key to the motion of the oarsmen.
“When the drum plays fast, we row fast,” said Til Nuon, 34, a crew member on the Bati So Sok Senchey.
“You can feel the drums in your body and it gives you energy to row,” he said. “If there is no drumming, maybe there is no rowing.”
On the western bank of the Tonle Sap, Mr. Nuon and others —winners and losers—began to celebrate Friday afternoon, bringing drums and cymbals off the boats and starting the party early, their on-boat duties done for the year.
But while dozens danced, more drama was unfolding between the boats.
Halfway down the river course, the Sa Em Sen Chey Baromey Svay Chrum collided with the Komheng Kumar Moha Hang, capsizing the latter.
Navy boats rushed to the aid of the rowers, bringing them back to the eastern bank as the surviving boat completed the race and made its way back upstream.
As it passed the docking area, however, irate members of the sunken boat picked up stones and water bottles, hurling them at the crew that had cost them a chance to finish the festival undefeated.
They claimed their competitor had crashed into them on purpose.
“I don’t know what is in their hearts,” said Men Ry, a 68-year-old crewman from the sunken boat. “But I believe they are angry at our success.”
“We beat them in the morning and we were ready to win all of our races. We will talk to the committee about this,” Mr. Ry said.
In another belligerent incident, the Techo Sen and the Dom Bong Pich Chenda crossed the finish line together, the judge unable to name a winner. The two crews then began swinging oars and throwing water bottles at each other, ignoring protocol to move to the edge of the river after the race finish, and nearly causing a four-boat collision as the next pair came speeding through.
The Navy boats again sprung to action, disengaging the two crews and sending them to opposite sides of the river to cool down.
At the close of the day’s racing, awards were handed out in the name of King Norodom Sihamoni, who had watched the final few matches from the Royal Pavilion overseeing the finish line.
The overall winner of the event, according to Bou Chumserey, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education and organizer of the boat racing, was a boat named Srey Sos Kean Chrey Baromey Techo from Kompong Cham province.
“When we added all the times together, they had 27 minutes and 10 seconds—the fastest,” Mr. Chumserey said.
In second place, with a time of 27:14, was Chan Somsen Mongkul, from Takeo province, and rounding out the top three, a further 10 seconds back, was the Kiri Vong Sok Sen Chey, the boat sponsored by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.
At the close of the event, dozens of boats sailed together down the Tonle Sap, cutting a giant red ribbon at the finish line to signal the end of the event as hundreds of colorful balloons were released overhead.
Back at the western bank, Mr. Veoun, the veteran captain of the Bati So Sen Sok, watched on as the dancing cranked up. Some crewmen stayed low, moving like monkeys; others stood tall, clapping and howling.
Amid the madness, Mr. Veoun held up a can of flavored soymilk, nodding toward it and raising his eyebrows. Soon enough, he suggested, a cold beer would be in its place.
“Tonight we will celebrate,” he said, enlarging his convivial, toothy grin. “Tomorrow, we will go home and begin to build our energy for next year.”