Standing in knee-high brown water Sunday morning, contestants in the 12th Annual Mekong River Swim—mainly Westerners in colorful swim suits—looked somewhat incongruous surrounded by tropic vegetation and fishing boats containing curious onlookers.
They were around 100 participants who had taken up the challenge to swim the 650 meters across the river from Phnom Penh’s Prek Leap Agricultural College on the river’s East bank to Koh Dach island.
Some participants splashed around a little, others just waited as they prepared for the swim. American Kristen Rasmussen, who was the main organizer, informed the swimmers through a megaphone that after they had crossed the river they would be taken back to Prek Leap college by boat.
And then they were off.
Frenchman Xavier Riplet forged quickly ahead to become the competition’s undisputed winner. But Riplet seemed unimpressed by his victory. An electrical engineer—and former elite swimmer who has lived in Cambodia for 11 years— Riplet put his hands on his knees and gasped slightly, then he looked up and watched the rest of the group arrive, one by one.
“This is my sport. I swim every day,” he said. “I have participated in this event three times; in 1997, 2006 and now today. In 2006 the current was stronger.”
Riplet also won the two other times he swam in the race, though he added modestly: “It was just for fun, it is nothing special.”
Twenty minutes after Riplet’s arrival, a boat took the swimmers back to Prek Leap college where organizers were busy preparing soft drinks and sandwiches.
A group of volunteers led by Rasmussen had organized the event, and with a $10 entry fee and sponsorship from both local and international NGOs, Rasmussen said the organizers were likely to break even.
“I think everything has gone pretty smoothly. People are having fun,” she said as she handed out drinks to the swimmers.
Ricarda Rieger, 41, a German UN staffer, who crossed the river in 15 minutes—eight minutes more than it took Riplet—said her time was more than satisfactory.
“I am very happy right now, because I did it,” she said.