TAKHMAO CITY, Kandal province – Tens of thousands of eager spectators lined the riverbanks of the Tonle Bassac here over the weekend for the first boat races of the year, a precursor to the Water Festival and a return to normalcy after the races were canceled last year.
About 70,000 people watched more than 3,000 men and women battle it out on the water, part of a centuries-old tradition, said provincial governor Mao Phirun. A total of 64 boats were divided between three different categories—small boats called Pkha Cha, international-style boats and longboats.
“It went smoothly,” Mr. Phirun said, adding that the weather had been good and people stayed safe. “Everyone was happy.”
After hundreds of revelers were killed in a panic-induced stampede during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh in 2010, the capital has only hosted boat races once, meaning the races in Kandal, used as a recruiting run, have also been rare.
The irregular occurrence in recent years seemed to inspire a fresh enthusiasm among spectators and paddlers alike. For the first time, members of the country’s Cham Muslim community were invited to take part in the races this year, according to Mr. Phirun. “They asked to participate and to be joyful with us,” he said.
About 200 Cham paddlers filled 20 Pkha Cha boats, including several teams of women, who blew kisses and waved at the crowd after every race.
Sok Chansreypheap, 33, traveled from Kompong Speu province with her two young children to watch three of her brothers—all Cham fishermen—join the race.
“They just want to have fun,” she said. “I’m so happy.”
Ms. Chansreypheap said that Takhmao City’s Preak Tapov village, where she had been staying during the celebrations, was practically deserted over the weekend, as the predominantly Cham residents came out to watch the races.
“The whole village went quiet,” she said, adding that only her 80-year-old grandmother stayed behind.
The winning teams in the main races, however, were those manned by veteran rowers and backed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who sat in a cordoned-off area with other government officials watching the festivities.
Mr. Hun Sen sponsored the two longboats that placed first and second—Kamsan Choulsa from Phnom Penh and Saray Techo Senchey from Kandal province, Mr. Phirun said. The Sreysar Soksenchey boat, also from Kandal and sponsored by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An—the premier’s main rival on the river—took third place.
Prizes included cash awards of up to 7 million riel, or about $1,750, sacks of rice, flags, trophies and boxes of water and juice.
Sitting below a footpath on the grassy embankment, Ros Prel, 64, a fisherman from Kompong Cham province, said he had been taking part in the races since he was about 13 and was thrilled to do it again this year.
“I am so happy. Boat racing is Cambodia’s tradition,” he said. “The next generation needs to preserve it…no matter what. We should not forget our tradition and culture.”