In Banteay Meanchey province, boat teams are in intensive training before the official racing at the upcoming Water Festival from November 26-28 as they aim to take to the river as formidable contenders.
Preceding the festivities known as Bon Om Touk in Khmer, local oarsmen are practising hard for district and provincial races as they vie for places in the national competition in the capital.
“We must secure a favourable position to participate in the national competition,” states a representative of the boat racing commission in Banteay Meanchey province ahead of the races scheduled in Phnom Penh.
There is extra anticipation surrounding this year’s boat races, with an expected influx of participants and spectators after a three-year hiatus away from the capital.
The upcoming Water Festival from November 26-28 on the Tonle Sap River in front of the Royal Palace, promises opportunities to immerse in the celebrations, with illuminated floats along the river, firework displays, concerts and art performances.
Chhay Sovan, deputy head of the boating commission at the Samaki Meanchey Baromey Saray Andet Pagoda in Banteay Meanchey province, expresses a strong desire for his group to participate in the national race in Phnom Penh.
He sees this as an opportunity to showcase their strength and assess the capabilities of long boat contenders from remote provinces.
Boat racers will have the chance to witness firsthand both the progress of the current era and the positive changes underway in the capital.
“When we reach Phnom Penh, opportunities arise. Firstly, recognition of our boat; secondly, awareness of the number of racers; thirdly, acknowledgment of Banteay Meanchey province’s strong boat teams.
“The public will be able to identify the boat from our pagoda – we have 22 skilled oarsmen ready for the national contest,” he says.
Sovan mentions that during the rehearsal, rowers synchronised their actions to compete most effectively.
Their continuous effort has infused the team with the spirit needed for the competition in Phnom Penh.
High hopes for victory
San Sokheang, co-founder of the Saray Techo Senchey boat from Pichey Rangsey pagoda in Kandal province, says his team secured first place in provincial races.
The victory motivated the rowers to focus extra hard on participating in the forthcoming competition in the capital.
He expresses confidence that rowers, leaders and residents will provide extensive support for the national competition.
He also states that he has high hopes his boat will emerge victorious in the national competition.
He speaks highly of the significance and value of public participation in the festival, as it preserves traditions, culture and asserts a national identity with deeply embedded roots.
Referring to the Angkor era, he noted the historical practice of crafting boats for battle, underscoring Cambodia’s enduring commitment to maintaining and upholding its rich culture and traditions.
“Boat racing holds immense value for our nation, serving not only as a demonstration for our people but also as a global showcase of Cambodian strength and capability.
“We take pride in our rich civilisation, culture and historical prominence in ancient wooden boat races, boasting the world’s highest number of oarsmen,” he says.
Deeming lengthy practice as time-consuming and dull, Sokheang says the optimal time for training was no more than two weeks before the competition.
With too much focus placed on the oarsmen’s performance, boat decorations risked being neglected.
Nuth Sopheaktra, a racer for the Reaksmey Pkhay Preuk boat from in Por Reang district, of Prey Veng province, expresses his desire to bring a victory to his hometown despite limited experience in racing in Phnom Penh.
He diligently practises for competitions in his province and in others, aiming for positive results.
“This year, our team and the boat commission are dedicated to securing a win, aiming to uplift our supporters upon our return,” he adds.
Poun San, a long-time supporter of Prey Veng province, shares his enthusiasm for boat racing.
This year, in addition to observing races in various provinces, he plans to attend the national races.
He notes the visually pleasing nature of boat racing and the festive atmosphere, with many rural residents eager to witness the races and explore the capital.
“Boat racing enthusiasts will be drawn to the capital due to the presence of numerous skilled racers.
“With people eager to visit Phnom Penh and see its development, I look forward to this year’s boat races.
“In the province, we usually only interact with fellow residents – however, in Phnom Penh, I will have the opportunity to connect with individuals from various places, bringing me joy,” he says.
San notes from his experience of observing boat races in various provinces that he has witnessed the refurbishment of old boats and the introduction of many new ones.
Consequently, this year’s boat races are anticipated to be a lively celebration, while the number of boats taking part may surpass that of 2019.
Sum Mab, spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, says that in addition to the Water Festival, the ministry is planning performances near Wat Botum pagoda and near the Chroy Changvar Bridge for three nights.
The presentations will feature dance, songs, theatre and traditional spectacles set to entertain.
Prime Minister Hun Manet has said he expected that more than 300 boats to compete in this year’s Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
“Soon, we will celebrate the Water Festival together, with the participation of 300 boats and their crews.
“Some of the vessels that will be entered for this year’s spectacular races will be personally sponsored by me, as well as Cambodian People’s Party [CPP] president Hun Sen and several other leaders,” he said at a recent meeting with factory workers.