Celebration On Water
By: Ann Creevey. Picture by : Nathan Dexter & Yongkiat P ( October, 2001 Volume 1 No.5 )

For months, workers at Wat Samrong in Takhmao have been toiling over a brand new boat for Preah Reach Pithi Bonn Om Touk, or Water Festival. Boats from all over the country will come to Phnom Penh to race in front of the Royal Palace in a three-day annual festival, held around of the full moon of Kattik (the twelfth month of the Khmer lunar calendar). This year those days fall on October 30, 31 and November 1. Cambodian people say they celebrate the festival to honor their Khmer ancestors and commemorate ancient naval battles in defense of their country. The festival is also to thank the earth and water for their gifts. Some people say it is to celebrate the changing of direction of the Tonle Sap and the end of wet season. Still others say it began as a celebration for Buddha's tooth, kept by the King of the Naga, or in memory of a bridge of boats built by the Buddha to end the drought in the Kingdom of Vaicali. Whatever its purpose, the festival is an ancient one, although it stopped for nearly 20 years through the period of civil war and only resumed again in 1990. That year, 100 boats took part. This year, there will be about 400 from across the kingdom. Rowers per boat can vary between 45 and 60 men or women, according to the Deputy General Director of the Permanent Commission for Organizing National and International Ceremonies, Mr Chea Kieng.
His office, at 389 Sisowath Quay, north of the Royal Palace, is already busy gathering sponsors and donations for the hundreds of rowers who will flood into the city for the festival. Sponsored clothes and other items such as food and drink must be found for them, and sponsors can arrange to place their advertising or logos on rower's traditional uniforms. Back in Takhmao, the monks and laypeople are all in agreement. The new vessel must be strong. This pagoda has a good reputation for its boats and this one is the first that senior monk Ken has built without the help of a professional boat builder. There are six boats altogether at the pagoda. Pagodas are the traditional place to store the vessels between Water Festivals. This one they hope will prove to be the best. "We call it Eisei Tbong Pich," he said. "We are very sure this boat will help us to win a flag."

The new boat is lying in the yard, ready for the final touches of decoration that will transform it into a gleaming beauty, fit to race before the Royal Palace under the eyes of the king. Eisei is a guru figure from the Ramayana. Tbong Pich means diamond, so the boat's name means the gift of a precious diamond from Eisei. The monks hope the name is true. Last year, their boat Entry Sanjai (the conquering eagle), built by Mr Kom from Kampong Thom, brought the pagoda a place, and another boat, nicknamed Klarhan (brave), took third place in the finals. Those boats sit in a long shed nearby, Entry Sanjai still in her racing colors of the year before, an eagle with talons extended and wings outstretched painted on her prow. Ken, 41, has been a monk at Wat Samrong for 10 years. Last year, he studied the other boat builder's techniques for the last time, learning everything he could before he built Eisei for himself, a team of dedicated workmen helping him to bring his dream to life. In the third week of September, Eisei lies in the courtyard of the large pagoda on the Bassac River in its natural state, without even a coat of varnish covering the smooth lines. "We are raising money to paint our Eisei Tbong Pich," said Ken. "When it is finished, it will be painted with gold, the traditional Khmer way." Ceremonies will be held in the boat's honor and offerings laid upon it. A lacquered gold oar is placed at one end, shaded by a parasol. If there is a spiritualist available, he will be summoned to call upon the spirits to protect the boat and bestow wealth and good health to the people connected with it. Sometimes, he sprinkles holy water onto the gathered crowd. Sometimes, he will go into a trance and dance, mimicking the rowers, or bring luck by knotting cotton thread or handkerchiefs to the wrists of each team member.

On the morning of the festival, large golden eyes will be painted on the boats to bring good luck. A drum will beat, and with three loud shouts, Eisei and the other boats will be launched into the Tonle Bassac. Because they are not far from Phnom Penh, the rowers will take the boats to the city by water, ready to compete; perhaps soon after they arrive. Eisei and the other boats of Wat Samrong are touk muong; the type of boat without the highly curved ends. The other type is called a touk ngor. The main part of a Water Festival boat’s hull is made of a single hollowed log of the Koki tree. Khmers say Koki timber "can live in the water for 100 years". They vary between 20 and 30 meters in length. The top part of the boat and the prow is fashioned from a combination of sralao, lumbao or jackfruit timber. A boat costs up to $2,500 to make. Ken will test Eisei before the festival. Until a boat is floated, no one knows how it will sit on the water. Because each boat needs so many rowers, it is a massive operation to organize those living around the pagoda to turn up in good enough numbers to help try the new vessel out, so the first trial may not be until just before the festival. Many pagodas test their charges over Pchum Ben, or Festival of the Dead, when crowds of people flock to the pagodas to pay their respects to the ancestors.
Even if Eisei fails to match its rivals, there is still hope for Ken and his team. There are different categories of prizes this year, including design and beauty, strict traditional rowing uniform, and dress and rhythm of the boat commander, who sits at the prow and coordinates the team by beating a drum. The largest amount of prize money for a winning boat this year is 450,000 riels (about $115). But Ken says he is happy just to be a part of Water Festival, along with his boat and his crew. "We are already proud of Eisei Tbong Pich. It is a good boat I am sure," Ken said, satisfied.