Feature: Millions flock to Phnom Penh for annual Water Festival (Feature)
By Robert Carmichael Nov 20, 2010, 10:32 GMT
Phnom Penh - 'This year I selected all the men on the team, and they are all very, very strong,' says boat leader Rong Chhun, a lean, weathered rice farmer from central Kampong Chhnang province.
'The weaker men lacked strength so I let them rest this year,' he says, standing on the deck of an old wooden boat moored in Phnom Penh on the west bank of the river.
The boat doubles as accommodation for his 50-strong team of rowers.
'So I hope with this team we will win.'
It is Rong Chhun's fourth Water Festival, and he is not alone in his hopes of glory. Saturday marked the first day of a four-day holiday that celebrates a famous 12th-century naval victory.
But more relevantly, the Water Festival is a chance for millions of the country's rural majority to take a break from agricultural work and head to the bright lights of Phnom Penh.
And it also brings the chance of glory for more than 400 teams that have come from across Cambodia to race in the long, wooden canoes.
Over four days, the teams race each other in pairs down a short stretch of the Tonle Sap river.
The houseboat of another team leader, Kea Kim, is moored a hundred yards upriver. He is a festival veteran, having first come when he was 16, and his face is as weathered as the planks on his boat.
He says the years have seen many changes.
'There are many more boats now than in the old days, and the boats are also much longer,' he says. 'Previously, we could fit 40 people ona boat, but now we can take nearly 70.'
Kea Kim says sponsorship helps. Teams luckier than his have patrons who pay for food and travel expenses. Having a sponsor also allows the teams to take time off for practice.
'But we are not afraid of any of the other boats,' he says. 'Provided they have the same number of men as my boat, we will certainly win.'
But it is not just spectators and teams of rowers who have flocked to the city. Thousands of sex workers have come too, lured by the opportunity to earn up to 100 dollars a day, five times what they would usually make.
And while the authorities have pledged to arrest those engaged in prostitution, others are preaching the benefits of safe sex. WorldVision, an international NGO, has sent several teams of staff to talk about HIV/AIDS.
WorldVision's Ruon Saran says it is vital to educate competitors and spectators during the Water Festival, even though most are embarrassed to discuss condom use.
'But some of the men are happy because we have come here to tell them: Don't forget about HIV when you are in Phnom Penh. And don't take HIV back home to your wife,' she says.
Back on his houseboat, which doubles as sleeping quarters for his team of 50 men aged between 20 and 50, Kea Kim endorses the message. He says the presence of HIV is another change from the old days.
To combat the scourge, Kea Kim has banned the men on his team from leaving the boat for long stretches at night.
In a rest area for the men on the riverbank, the talk is more about strategy and planning than about STDs. Helmsman My Seyhang came from remote Kratie province in the northeast for his sixth festival and shares a few tips.
'Of course you have to make the boat go as fast as possible,' he says. 'And we need a strong boat with a good spirit, since that way we will win easily.'
'But it is the same for us as it is with boxers - if they don't practice enough, they will lose.'
And while many teams have been able to practice as a team for perhaps a week or two, his men have been working hard for months.
'This year we have had a lot of time to practice, and so I am hopeful that this year we will win,' he says.
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