The captain blew his whistle, startling his oarsmen out of their resting places, and ordered them to gather under a ragged tarpaulin strung between three trees in the mud.
Here they would discuss Water Festival racing tactics for Srey Mao Kraing Yov, the boat named and sponsored by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Those tactics, however, would remain a secret.
“It’s like we are playing football and the coach is about to lay out the game plan,” said a large man acting as a team minder, smiling as he escorted reporters out of a primary school cum rowers’ camp on the eastern bank of the Tonle Sap river.
“Imagine you are the Manchester team: You don’t need to let Chelsea know how you will play,” he said. “Its all about sports, not politics.”
Last month, Mr. Hun Sen claimed in a speech that his deputy, Sok An, had a history of manipulating the Water Festival races by bringing a fleet of boats, interchanging their names and crews to deceive the competition in the first two days of racing and then rolling out his best on the final day when the prizes are won.
Mr. Hun Sen dared his deputy to commit the name Kiri Vong Sok Sen Chey—a nod to Mr. An’s home district in Takeo province—to just one boat for the entirety of the competition. The prime minister also challenged his longtime boat-racing rival to put his best crew in the boat for a head-to-head race on the first day of the festival to decide, once and for all, whose team is superior.
The prime minister’s desired match-up will take place today.
“They are the 60th pair. They will meet at 2 p.m.,” said Huot Seng Try, a permanent member of the secretariat of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals.
The boats carrying the hopes and reputations of two of the nation’s most powerful men will start at the Chroy Changva bridge, racing downstream about 1 km to the finish line in front of the Royal Palace. Then, they will row slowly back to the start, swap lanes and go again.
Mr. Seng Try pointed out that there are no rules to prevent boats from changing names or crews mid-festival.
Questions put to members of the Hun Sen-sponsored boat from Kandal province were largely met with silence or one-word answers.
Heng Kuoy, the 60-year-old coach of the Srey Mao Kraing Yov crew, was the only one to speak at length.
Mr. Kuoy, a veteran boat racer himself, said the 78 men—mostly poor farmers and fishermen between the ages of 30 and 50—who would propel the prime minister’s vessel had an “85 percent chance” of winning.
He said that during training over the past month, his crew had been placed on a high sugar, high protein diet that had given them the necessary strength and stamina to race well.
“Every day, the racers have been eating a dessert that contains one sack of beans and one sack of sugar to build their power,” Mr. Kuoy said. “Samdech [Hun Sen] spends about 1 million riel [$250] to support the team every day.”
Asked about the accusation of race rigging, the coach said Mr. Hun Sen was correct in his assessment of Mr. An’s dubious tactics.
“We only need to use the one boat you can see in the water—it is fast enough,” he said, before making his way back to his team.
Almost directly across the river, at the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port, was another motley rowers’ camp containing a few dozen of the 245 crews scheduled to compete.
Among them were the green-shirted men of Mr. An’s team.
In their camp—little more than a sheet of corrugated iron erected to block the searing sun—sculpted men young and old swung on hammocks, smoked tobacco rolled in leaves and talked tactics. But here, the strategy wasn’t secret.
Team members readily revealed that the deputy prime minister had in fact brought seven boats into Phnom Penh for the festival. And if he wants to, he will swap their names and interchange rowers, they said.
Pheng Sarith, 46, the coxswain of Mr. An’s Takeo Traing Sok Sen Chey, argued that, contrary to the prime minister’s accusations, success on the water is less about tools and more about technique.
“Winning and losing depends on the crew,” Mr. Sarith said sharply.
“Some experienced rowers know how to manipulate the water conditions in order to win,” he added, going on to explain how identifying minor inconsistencies in the current can equate to major gains at the finish line.
“However, only the most skillful rowers can do this.”
Among the mostly sprightly rowers in Mr. An’s colors was Kay Vin, a 47-year-old veteran of 24 Water Festivals, who said he had “tried all seven of Sok An’s boats” but would this year take charge of the rookie crew of Kiri Vong Sok Sen Chey, which consists mostly of soldiers aged 16 to 30.
Mr. Vin said that 90 percent of the men he had rowed with at past festivals had now retired, leaving him to lead an inexperienced team.
“Our young rowers are like fresh seeds that have been planted in the earth,” he said. “We have watered them and expect them to grow quickly, but maybe they have been harvested before they are mature.”
As Mr. Vin walked down a muddy track to the river’s edge, Mr. An’s fleet of seven colorful boats came into view, bobbing in the shallows as their oarsmen prepared for another trial run.
“All the boats belong to Sok An, so if he wants to switch them during the festival, that’s up to him,” Mr. Vin said.
Asked whether Mr. An would accept his superior’s challenge, Mr. Vin dodged the question, addressing instead the final day of competition, when the champion is crowned.
“Samdech [Hun Sen]’s boat may win on the first day and second day,” he said. “But on the third day, Kiri Vong Sok Sen Chey will defeat it absolutely.”