A day before the Water Festival boat races were due to commence, the sun was hiding behind ominous-looking rain clouds, and a light drizzle had begun.
For some, this was a cue to seek shelter, but for Chin Chanheng, the coxswain for the racing team representing the village of Thmar Kor in Kandal province, there was no time to worry about getting drenched. His team, led by head coach Oung Samkon, has almost always been on the victor’s podium since the festivities were re-organised by the government in 1994.
“We’ve claimed the first place eight times,” said 63-year-old Samkon on the banks of the Tonle Sap River.
“We were the first runner-up in our category for several seasons – and we’ve only dropped out of the podium three or four times since we began participating in the races.”
For a while yesterday, the situation on the boat seemed quite tense. Chanheng, the coxswain, was already in position at the bow of the boat, while his team of rowers sat on their seats, awaiting his order.
“We might not have the biggest boat or crew – but our team of 53 rowers can take on a boat with 80 rowers with ease!” exclaimed a team member towards the back of the boat, as the rowers fought against the current to the starting point near the Chroy Changvar Bridge.
Then the boat made a rather stomach-turning manoeuvre to the left, and Chanheng’s expression suddenly changed. The last practise race was about to commence.
With a shrill squeal of the coxswain’s whistle, the 1.7-kilometre race to the finish point began.
The rowers pummelled the water’s surface in sync, propelling the 20-metre-long boat into what seemed to be a rather dangerous speed, considering that the boat was fashioned from the trunk of a Koki tree that has been waterproofed with some tar.
Unlike a regular coxswain on a regatta event, Chanheng moved like a conductor, and his team of 53 rowers is his orchestra.
The sound of the whistle, the pounding of the oars almost seemed elaborately choreographed. The esprit de corps and the excitement was contagious, but the competitive vibe began to dissipate as soon as the boat docked on the riverbank.
Chanheng the coxswain and his team of 53 rowers soon disembarked and disappeared from sight – leaving head coach Samkon behind.
“The water is deeper than last year so the current on the surface is slower,” said Samkon, who watched from the riverbank as the practise run ended.
“It should take about 320 to 330 strokes by each rower to get to the finish point under five minutes –
as one stroke from all the rowers will push the boat forwards around six metres.”
Such empiric calculations seem to suggest that this is a competition, in the truest sense of the word. But Samkon didn’t debrief the team as they disbanded.
“We have to remember that this is also a celebration,” reminded Samkon. “I don’t see the need to dictate what my team can or cannot do during the festivities – but I’m sure they know my team members know their limits.”
In fact, Samkon didn’t even have a fixed training schedule for his team.
“It’s difficult to set a training schedule, as this holiday coincides with the last rice-planting season of the year, so many have chosen to tend to their fields before the monsoon ends,” he explained.
“Although it is technically a competition, ultimately we don’t care if we win or lose,” continued Samkon. “This is not just a competition, this is our way of preserving a tradition that goes as far back as the 12th century.”
Indeed, the Water Festival is not as simple as it seems. It is not only a salute to the mighty rivers and
a tribute to the deities that gave rise to the mighty Khmer Empire – one of the world’s largest and most advanced pre-industrial societies. The Mekong with its silt-rich soil, and its unique interaction with the Tonle Sap River as the monsoon wanes, doesn’t only provide sustenance for millions of people who live along their trunks and tributaries, it is also a strategic route for naval missions.
“We were once a naval power to be reckoned with,” said Samkon, referring to the triumph of King Jayavarman VII over the neighbouring Kingdom of Champa during the Golden Age of the Khmer Empire.
“Back then, instead of motorised boats, they used sail boats for transport,” he continued. “Soldiers used cantilevered oars so they could move faster, but the shape of the boat is essentially the same as the ones that are in use today.”
Ultimately, however, a race is a race, and Samkon then excused himself – perhaps to rest, perhaps to take in the sights and sounds of the city – before adding that despite everything that he had said, he still wants his team to win today.
“The boat ride back to our village will be much more exciting if we come back as winners.”