The toughest boat race in the country - we did it!!!
10.11.2008 - 17.11.2008 28 °C
Wow, what an event! The boat race during the Water Festival is THE top event of the year here. So when I got on my journey to Phnom Penh to take part in it, I didn’t really know what to expect. And after only one practice session beforehand where our Khmer rowing colleagues explained the basics on how to paddle, I guess we all felt a little under-prepared. But hej, we were in it for the experience, weren’t we?
So in the morning of 11th November we all got together as the VSO programme office to get into our racing outfits (pink t-shirts and white hats a la T-Mobile, even though they didn’t sponsor us) and figured out the final seating order for the boat.
Then, full or energy and excitement, we got picked up by 2 trucks to take us to the riverfront. This journey in itself was an experience, travelling standing on the back of the trucks through the centre of town. Even though that’s a common way of transport for Cambodians, we got a lot of attention with our pink t-shirts already there before even getting to the water. We were about 35 volunteers plus a small cheering and support group of non-rowing volunteers who came with us.
When we got to the river close to the starting point, our boat and about 15 Khmer colleagues were already there, ready to take the defeat. All of the 500 boats taking part were quite spread out along the river on both sides, so it wasn’t to crowded and we still had plenty of time before so we went for a coffee to get the necessary sugar kick before the race.
The race was organised in pairs of boats one after the other, so we only had one boat to race against and then the winner goes on to the next round. When we came back from coffee, it had gotten busier with more boats around and we were getting slightly concerned that in this growing chaos of boats we had to find our competing boat to go to the start together. Surely there must have been some sort of order which we didn’t understand but luckily our competitor boat found us before we even started looking properly. They came up to us and when they saw that they would be racing the foreigner boat, they almost started the party then and there.
Once we got into the boat with our orange life vests over the pink t-shirts the colour clash was hilarious – but this wasn’t about fashion, aye? We passed the first challenge of getting in successfully and nobody fell in. Next was the challenge of getting out of the jam-packed boat waiting area to the actual start, which wasn’t really possible because there was no space to move at all because some 20 or more boats were paddle to paddle next to us. The rowers were quite chatty and cheering us on a lot but so close by we could also see how well trained they were. Scary…
Then after more than half and hour or so when we already thought we might not even get to the start on time because of the jam, everything started moving all of a sudden and complete chaos turned into some sort of order. Just go with the flow, like so often in Cambodia.
Now the challenge was to actually row to the start… against the current, which was quite strong really. They all said don’t wear yourselves out but just to get the boat moving forward and not back was quite an effort. It was only 100 meters or so and then we had to turn and get into position with the other boat for the flying start. Once we had managed to turn (again without falling in – very good!!!) it all went really quickly. The race was started, our opponents got going really fast and we were all too keen to keep pace that we didn’t really row in one rhythm… and unfortunately our Khmer captain at the front got a little too excited himself so that he forgot to give us one joint rhythm. I was towards the front were we started shouting in one way, in the back they had another rhythm. So a bad start really. I hope we were far enough from the bank so that the crowd couldn’t see all the mess. The distance to row was about 1000 meters I guess and just before the half way mark, the captain finally stopped dancing on the front end, found his whistle and started giving the rhythm but by then we had it figured out already and actually picked up a good speed. And no other boat from the races coming behind us had overtaken us, yet. Our competitors were far ahead of course… And then close to the finish one boat from behind overtook us and then 2 more. And let me tell you, it was really, really hard. We gave all we had and it did feel really fast, so 3 boats overtaking us was disappointing. This would have been the same result as last year, where the VSO boat also came 5th out of 2… But luckily we had our supporters on the bank who saw it all and they are convinced that the 2 other boats only passed us after the finishing line when we all collapsed straight away. So the official result we favour is 3rd out of 2. And boy, were we proud of it!!!
But the best part of the race was actually after the finish. Again we had to turn and then paddle slowly, slowly to our parking position along the bank. The bank was packed with people and when they all saw us close up, they were just shouting and cheering and we were holding our paddles in the air, like we’d won the whole thing. Truly amazing! And our captain starting dancing again on the front in his traditional Khmer pants and suit jacket (by the way he was the only person dressed like this, all the other captains were in normal racing dress – but it looked great).
Luckily we found a parking spot near a nice riverfront bar and decided to take a rest and a few beers and continue watching from the rooftop. It was amazing to see the whole dimension of it, all the colourful boats and so many people on the river. Even though we heard rumours of another foreigner boat like us, I didn’t see any. And most boats were with men but also a few Khmer women’s boats, which was great to see.
We finished our racing activity there and then because exhaustion had started kicking in and even though we theoretically could have done another run, we thought it would just get a lot worse. Plus we would have had to row the boat all the way back up to the start… no way! Third place is excellent, isn’t it??? Some of us also got interviewed by a Khmer TV station, so the despite defeat our Khmer colleagues also got a moment of fame out of it. They were all really great, giving all their energy get us started and to keep us going when our untrained muscles gave in.
So after this exhausting day we had a small get-together of tired people in the evening but everybody was literally too tired, so it was cosy and rather civilized (unlike usual volunteer events here…).
And that was also the end of my Water Festival in the city. The next day I left busy Phnom Penh for a few days of relaxation on the Cambodian coast, which was indeed just right. Cheap massages for my aching shoulder after the race and chilling on a quiet beach…
So this was it and I really, really want to thank those of you again who got inspired to support us and mainly our Khmer colleagues in this event. It all went to a very good and worthwhile course, i.e. them and their families. You all raised quite a lot which didn’t all go to the race but as I mentioned before, there is a great school project here in Battambang, which probably needs help even more. I’m in close contact with them and will let you know where it all goes.
OKUN CHERAN TEANG OH K’NEA M’DONG TIET – thank you very much once more everyone!
PS: Booked a flight home to Germany over Xmas and New Year (23-08.01.) now and really hope I can meet up with lots of you (let me know, if you’re around!). A bit scared of the cold though… ;-) Then I’ll come back here to work until end of March and then take some time for travelling – that’s the plan at the moment at least.