A Travellerspoint blog

Cambodian Water Festival 2008

The toughest boat race in the country - we did it!!!

semi-overcast 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.

Take care!

Posted by Brizie 20:54 Archived in Cambodia Tagged events Comments (0)

Yes we can!

Two days to boat race day...

overcast 32 °C

Dear all!

It's Sunday today, day 4 after Obama won the election, and tomorrow I'll head to Phnom Penh on the 7am bus to get there on time for the big day on Tuesday. It’ll be the first day of the Cambodian Water Festival and the year’s biggest event will take place – the boat race on the Mekong. We’ve been practicing a bit to get up to speed with the technique and the rhythm but never all of us together because it wasn't really possible to get all of us volunteers from the provinces to Phnom Penh at the same time. So maybe we’re gonna do some ‘dry practice’ before we start…just to make sure we don’t knock each other out with the paddles.

I now got a few photos from one of the practice sessions where I took part, see below. Can you tell from my face how hard it was???? ;-) And a big, big thanks to all of you who are supporting us in the race. OKUN CHERAN TEANG OH K’NEA!




There’ll surely be some great pictures after the race and I’ll post a new article as soon as I get back.

Keep your fingers crossed for the foreigner boat! It'll be a long series of one to one races (500 boats in total) the winners are going on to the next round. There really is no chance of winning our first race for us due to the major lack of skills compared to the Khmer guys, so the ambition is more no to get overtaken by more than 2 races that start after us. It's about participating, a bit like the with the olympics...


Posted by Brizie 00:04 Archived in Cambodia Tagged events Comments (0)

I want a beach!!!

A week in Thailand - Koh Chang and Bangkok

semi-overcast 32 °C

I was really so ready to go on holiday and couldn’t wait to get to Thailand and a white sandy beach on a small island. So I went on a 3-hour bus journey northwest to the border town of Poipet (which is often described as the ‘armpit’ of Cambodia and it really is!!!) where I met up with Elise, a Dutch volunteer based there, to travel on together.

So in the evening we went out to look around and the place is truly strange – a border town. There is one main unpaved road leading all the way through to the border posts and it only needs a bit of rain to really turn into a complete mud bath. Then there’s the Cambodian border checkpoint at the end and after that a stretch or road of maybe 1km until reaching the Thai immigration point. And in between these two a whole casino and duty free city jumps out. Huge air-conditioned hotel and casino blocks on (I think) Cambodian soil full of Thai and other Asian gamblers who come from places where gambling is illegal to make or lose a fortune here. We looked into one of them and it is truly strange, full of bright artificial lights that make you forget what time of the day or week it is. But its not all about gambling on this ‘strip’, there are also a number of small but well-stocked supermarkets with all sorts of products coming from Thailand .

The next day when we set off to cross the border and during the day that road in between countries was packed with Cambodian traders pulling large wooden carts to buy products in Thailand and then bring them back to sell in Cambodia. The picture of these very poor, hard-working people against the shiny casino skyline was truly strange but really showing the huge contrast between the two countries.

Photo: Trading queue at Poipet border crossing in between the casinos

On the other side there was unfortunately no bus we could take to Koh Chang, so a rather pricey but pink (!!!) taxi was the only choice. And from the border onwards, things really changed and it was obvious we were in a much more developed country. Paved roads, proper signs, more cars and fewer motos (but people wear helmets), much more stone-build houses with neatly kept gardens, large fruit plantations, etc. A different world from Cambodia and still so close.

3 hours drive or so and a ferry crossing later we finally were on Koh Chang – Elephant Island and checked into a nice little bungalow 20 meters from the sandy beach. It is low season now and less touristy than normal, which was nice. The weather was a little windy and the sea wavy but it was still really warm and lovely to swim. But eve though there already are many resorts and restaurants, tourism is still on the rise and new places were being built everywhere. Also, many places were run by foreigners, Germans, Austrians, Scandinavians, Brits, etc. And quite a few of the tourists were there to go for the ‘typical’ Thai holiday – cheap drinks, food and a Thai girl for even more fun. Sad to see and I was a bit shocked to see rather many of these obvious couples, even though it was low season.

Photo: One of the beaches

Photo: View from our beach bungalow

Anyway, we also hired motos and went on a ride inland to the jungle and a small waterfall. They also have lots of elephant treks there but that was a little too touristy for my linking, so the moto was the better choice. Some of the roads were really curvy and steep though, so the motorbikes were getting quite noisy on some of these climbs and I was grateful the brakes were working well on the descends…

Photo: On the motorbike around Koh Chang

Photo: Hiking through the jungle

After 3 days there I went on to Bangkok to meet up with Esther, a VSO colleague from Battambang, and Ginny and Hugh, an Australian couple also working here at the moment. The drive into town was quite interesting itself – from the outskirts to downtown it took a full hour on the highway or inner-city elevated roads, so we didn’t get stuck in city traffic but still it was loooong. What a massive city really! We stayed in a small lovely guest house in the old town but fortunately off the main tourist drag which is a little too crazy.

Our two days in the city we spent with a relaxed combination of sightseeing and shopping but right in the morning of the first day we got stuck in the usual tourist trap we didn’t know of. We were on the way to the palace when we asked a young guy for directions. He pointed out the palace was closed in the morning and recommended a couple of temples to see. And there was apparently a fashion fair around town as well with some great offers. We were about to walk on when miraculously a tuk-tuk stopped next to us and after a quick chat the driver offered us a very cheap price to take us to those temples. So we hopped in and went there. After the second one the driver said he’d now bring us briefly to a fashion factory to have a look. It was a tailors shop and then a jeweller, another shop and another one somewhere in the city. He was a nice guy though and explained that he could only give us such a cheap ride, if he’d bring us to these places as well because drivers get free petrol vouchers when they bring tourists, even if they don’t buy anything. So we agreed to go to a few but then I got too annoyed because people were really purely interested in getting hold of your money. And not even in a too friendly way…. So that were a couple of interesting hours on the roads of Bangkok. Live and learn…

Photo: A fleet of tuk tuk parked outside one of the 'fashion shops'

Eventually we did go to the palace which was quite spectacular – a lot of gold and bling-bling everywhere but in a very tasteful way. The next day we went around to a few more places and travelled mainly by river ferry, which was cheap and good fun. Its really like a bus on the water and very fast to get around the old part of town. More sights and some shopping on Khaosan Road (THE tourist drag selling almost everything you can imagine) later, we ended up exhausted but happy, eating noodles at a street stall. Then an early start the next morning to get across town to the bus station and back towards home sweet home in Cambodia.

Photo: Temples at the Royal Palace

Photo: They even have special spaces for monks on the river ferry... (see writing on the panels above heads)

Photo: Great views from the top of Wat Arun

Even though many people travelling Thailand don’t like Bangkok a lot (too big, too busy, too polluted), I really enjoyed it. Even though, I haven’t seen much outside the old town and didn’t go to the huge shopping malls or around the forest of concrete blocks in the business districts, it was really great being back in a big city and dive into all these ‘luxuries’ we don’t get here. Like a kid in a candy store really… and it cost me a fortune given my Cambodian allowance but was worth every Baht of it.

What I missed though was the friendliness of people here in Cambodia. Where we were people were purely business minded and instantly lose interest when the don’t see you as potential buyer. But that’s tourism, aye? Also I didn’t like that I couldn’t communicate with people so much as here where I speak a bit of Khmer at least. So it might sound a bit weird but at the end of the day I was really happy coming back to Cambodia. It did feel like coming home to a familiar place and people.

So a great break and definitely more travel in Thailand to come. But its a big country (compared to here at least) and I'll probably only have time to go and see a few places. It would be great to get a few good tips - so those of you who've travelled around Thailand, it would be great, if you could post me a few top tips to go to next time!!!

Take care everyone! Big hug!

Posted by Brizie 01:27 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Short update from Battambang

rain 28 °C


Just a quick note to say hello again! It has been another busy month or two at work and I haven’t found the time to write more. We’ve mainly done training sessions for our NGO staff to better get into the value chain mapping we’re doing. Sometimes with all of them in large groups but last week also 1,5 days individual small group sessions with each of the 3. And boy, that was hard work but good and useful. People begin to understand how to analyse the data they collected now, which is a completely new area of work for them. Abstract and critical thinking and drawing conclusions is something, field staff is not trained to do and find very difficult – at the beginning even impossible. It will still take much longer to help them on the right track and finally some projects on the ground but if we’d rush it now, they wouldn’t be able to grasp it really and repeat the process on their own after we leave.

But today is my last day in the office here before going off to Thailand for a week. The plan is to visit the island closest to here (because I’m dying for a cool swim!!!) called Koh Chang (this place is actually faster to get to than any of the Cambodian coast from where we are) for a few days with another volunteer and then I’ll travel to Bangkok for another 3 days and meet up with other friends over there. Everybody is travelling because another 3-day bank holiday is coming up next week (‘festival for the dead’…) where people go to the pagodas very early in the mornings for 2 weeks and throw cooked sticky rice balls… another interesting custom…

Weatherwise the rainy season has definitely arrived now. Last weekend was ok but the 2-3 weeks before it did rain a lot. Not all the time and not always at the same time each day but sometimes we had massive downpours for a few hours, sometimes it was drizzling for almost the whole day. The latter are the worse cause slight rain and overcast skies all day make it feel just like in northern Europe... just a bit warmer. The road outside my house got extremely muddy at times and my bike is completely covered in mud crust most of the time (I do clean it sometimes though but that only lasts for a day or so...). But from mid-October onwards it should turn to dry weather again.

Anyway, I’ve been on a few cycle trips over the weekends around BTB, a Khmer cooking class and a circus workshop. See pics below.
Will write again when I get back from Thailand – with some new impressions and stories from across the border (people say it really is like coming into a different world there – proper roads, etc.) Let’s see…

Take care,

Photo: Rice harvest just outside Battambang

Photo: Some kids out in a village who got extremely excited seeing a foreigner on a bike...

Photo: Getting ready at the cooking class ... check the name of the place...

Photo: With the smoking pots in front of us... me, opposite Esther and Ginny (2 other vols), and a German tourist next to me

Photo: Workshop at the circus school in Battambang last Sunday

Photo: Poor juggling attempt...

Posted by Brizie 02:23 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

An eventful month

About the elections, land dispute and special guests in Battambang

overcast 29 °C

In contrast to Europe, where things go very quiet come July because everyone is on holiday, the last 4-5 weeks here Cambodia were the busiest time since I came. Not one 3-5-day long public holiday like we had in April and May but instead the run-up to the national election on 27 July, the Thai-Cambodian land dispute over Preah Vihear and other border areas and then local things happening here like moving office and a short but very nice visit from Lindha and Toei, which rounded it all up perfectly.

The elections were a big thing and interesting to watch. I think they had 11 parties up for election but all but maybe 3 completely marginal with no real chance at all. The communist party (CPP) of prime minister Hun Sen dominated the game by far and as I heard, it was never a question of whether they would win again but only by how much and whether they will get enough to rule by themselves without coalition. Since 1993, the government was formed by a coalition between CPP and FUNCINPEC (royalist party), which was quite a struggle for both most of the time. So CPP changed the law to allow a party to rule with single majority instead of two thirds as before. However, this wouldn't really have been neccessary as CPP won around 91 of 123 seats anyway. It is significant though I think because this is the first time this happens since free elections first took place in 1993. Voter turnout was pretty high as well, even though there were some outcries in Phnom Penh that many voters known to vote for the opposition weren't on the registration lists and couldn't vote. The opposition party wanted a revote in PP but this went completely quiet after a few days. Haven't heard anything since.

Anyway, the main thing I could observe here in terms of campaigning were the large party convoys going through the streets. Masses of motos, cars and trucks full of people in party t-shirts, waving flags and blasting music and slogans thoughs big speakers (a bit like after a football game in parts of German cities). People sat on the back of the trucks and pick-ups on the ever popular plastic chairs or wodden boards, some looking rather bored. It seemed to me very much like just mass mobilisation without much athmosphere or spirit though. Just a lot of people. Later I heard that these guys were paid to take part in the convoys. The ones with cars the most, then motos and people just sitting on the backs got the least. Amazing, aye? I think, money ranged from $1-5 or so. Our cleaner at the office was invited, too, but she said the money was too little and sitting all day on a truck was too painful, so she didn't go. So much for the party spirit then...
All of it was very peaceful and even though I once got caught in the middle of a waiting convoy blocking a street completely, people were laughing and smiling and moving everything to let me go across with my bike.

Photo: A small part of a CPP party campaign convoy passing by my house

In terms of Preah Vihear temple and the Thai-Cambodian land dispute things still don't look good but seem to have calmed down a bit after several talks between the countries. They had agreed already to withdraw troops and stop the stand-off there. this apparently happened in some areas, while apparently trenches are being dug out in other areas. Nothing much to do apart from wait and see, I guess. Anyway, for personal safety I don't worry. It is a long way away from here (maybe not when you look on the map but travelling time is about a day at least).

Weatherwise, the rainy season has now finally properly begun, I think. We're having many really cloudy days with rains about once a day. Sometimes the mornings are sunny and beautiful and then the clouds come in later on. And when it rains, it rains properly ... Its usually easy to predict about 30min before, so there's time to find shelter or at least get the waterproof on. These are the better days, I think. For the last few days its been cloudy all day though and not so much heavy rain. But the clouds and lack of sun make it feel strangely northern European, just hotter. Not the best, I think... Hope the downpour and sun mix comes back soon. The one advantage of it all is that it does cool down a bit - below 30 degrees now - and I can sleep without a fan most nights.

Photo: This was a big shower - flooding the street for hours afterwards

Last weekend, I had my first real international visitors over: Lindha and Toei from Sweden who were travelling Thailand, Toei's home country. I was so excited that they could arrange to come to Cambodia for a bit but unfortunately they caught the bad weather as well. We still managed to visit a nearby temple and strolled around town for the rest of the time. Very nice - thanks, guys, I hope you did enjoy (I certainly did!), despite all the long travel times and the lack of sleep. I'm now endulging Swedish reindeer cream cheese from the tube on crisp bread - the wine is reserved for special moments.

Photo: The proof - international visitors (Lindha and Toei) in Battambang!

On Sunday after the two headed back to Thailand, my landlady came around with loads of other people and a pick-up truck full of oranges from her farm outside town. They unloaded everything under my house and then started sorting the harvest according to size to get it ready for sale in the market here later on. August is orange month here and Battambang is THE orange place in the country. Everybody goes a bit mad about them. They are certainly nice but nohing exceptional, I'd say. But maybe this is because no Spanish orange or so has ever made it to Cambodia for comparison. The ones here are rather small, green on the outside and full of pips but if you cut everything off, the flesh tastes nice.

Photo: My landlandy (in the middle holding up the oranges) and family and friends sorting oranges on a Sunday afternoon

During last week, we also moved to a new office together with the same 2 organisations we were sharing with before. We are now in a rather posh-looking villa because we were kicked out of the other building because they're pulling it down and building a guest house and car dealer there, I think. Shame but our new room here is nicer and even has 2 windows (no windows in our old place). I got really excited about this while our assistant instantly thought about how to cover the windows to block out the sun light and heat. Curtains are the compromise now ;-)

Photo: Our new office - the typical NGO mansion like many others here (we only have 1 room though)

Then I also had a 2-day trip to Phnom Penh for work, one leaving party of an Australian volunteer and another one to come on Sunday. Plus a training preparations for our NGOs for next week. You see, I'm still not getting bored here...

Keep writing and commenting, please. Love to hear from you from time to time as well.

Sok sabai! (good luck - people use it as a greeting or good bye here)


Posted by Brizie 00:45 Archived in Cambodia Tagged events Comments (0)

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