Win, Lose or Sink, Racers Revel in Tradition

With the return of Water Festival on Sunday, Att Phally was glad to get back in the water and paddle for the pride of his village.

“I’m happy that the boats are racing again this year,” he said on Sunday afternoon. “I like it because my ancestors also celebrated with boat races from the Angkor regime until now.”

A crew member reaches for a water bottle as his team awaits their turn to compete in Water Festival boat races in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. (Alex Consiglio)
A crew member reaches for a water bottle as his team awaits their turn to compete in Water Festival boat races in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. (Alex Consiglio)

It was only the second round of races for the 37-year-old. Long an annual tradition, the festival in Phnom Penh was canceled for three years after a stampede killed more than 350 people during the last night in 2010, and again last year due to low water levels.

In the first round of races on Sunday morning, Mr. Phally’s team, Saravoan Decho Senchey Baromey from Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, had fallen behind their opponent and failed to catch up, he said.

“I’m feeling a lot of regret because my boat lost the first round, but I will really fight to win,” he said, adding that he hoped to make up for the initial loss during races over the coming days.

With 259 teams competing in various divisions—including 76 elite teams—the competition will culminate in final races on Tuesday afternoon.

For Khan Mab, 41, recovering from his team’s loss would be even more difficult. As his team, Preah Tinang Rithy KIahan from Kandal province, reached the finish line, their boat quickly began to sink, leaving the 75 paddlers in a panic as they went down with it.

“I was really terrified. I thought I could die,” he said. “I held onto the boat and swam a little and waited for the marines to come.”

The rival team had veered into the path of his own and eventually struck the side of his boat, causing it to sink, he said. It was towed back to the side of the riverbed, where it spent the remainder of the day.

Mr. Mab said his team would not relent. “We will go home today, and tomorrow we will bring a smaller boat to compete,” he said, adding that about 50 teammates could fit in the backup boat.

“This is our tradition. Our ancestors also did boat racing and we are the next generation, so we need to continue our ancestors’ traditions,” he added.

People gather on the bank of the Tonle Sap to watch Water Festival boat races in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. (Alex Consiglio)

According to Touch Toeung from Takeo province, much of this year’s festival remained true to tradition—at least until pop music acts took over on stages throughout the city in the evening.

“I’ve come to Water Festival since Sihanouk’s regime,” said the 75-year-old of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s rule starting in the 1950s. “I come to reflect on those memories.”

Back then, he said, the main difference was the duration of the festival, which would stretch for seven days rather than three. “There are not many changes since I began watching. All the teams want to win to bring honor to their village.”

And per tradition, King Norodom Sihamoni sat on Sunday where his father did for many festivals before—at the front of the central balcony overlooking the river and the races.

About 2 million people are expected to attend this year’s festival, according to City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada—a stark contrast to the turnout of the 2014 festivities, when the city said less than 100,000 attended in the first two days.

Arriving from Takeo province with four friends to take part in her first Water Festival, 16-year-old Nak Net said she had long awaited the day she could take part in the tradition.

“I wanted to come here a few times already, but I couldn’t find anyone to go with,” she said. “I heard people who had been before saying that they were very happy here, so I wanted to feel like them.”

While Net had not actually watched any boat races on Sunday, just being amid the buzz of the action was worth the trip, she said.

“I can hear them cheering and it makes me so happy.”,

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