The sun is already high in the sky and the craft is on the water. Like so many others on the eve of the Water Festival, a long dragonboat is almost set to leave for Phnom Penh. This is the last chance training. To cheer his team, a jolly man in the middle of the boat is delivering a continuous array of songs and gags, dirty jokes and wordplays, far from his customary austerity. He is the bilal of the village, the one who calls the faithful Muslims to the daily prayer.
The village of Chroy Montrey (Kandal province) is usually best known for the ‘’terrorist activities’’ for which some members of its Koranic school were accused of a few years ago. But like the dynamic religious figure, people would have preferred to be known for their boats instead. It is surprising that this brief judicial episode still shrouded in mystery ended up overshadowing the great reputation of its skilful craftsmen who have built fishing boats for 200 years. They were once famous in the whole country and were mentioned in a few accounts left by Western explorers.
Not much differentiates the fishing boat from the race dragonboat, apart from a bit of audacity. People of Chroy Montrey only started to participate in the races at the beginning of the 1990s. But that did not prevent the “Chok Leng Moha Saen Chat” [the name given to the boat] from winning twice in a row, while the Water Festival resumed its celebrations. The old long boat now rests in the shade of the new mosque, which was built as often thanks to funds raised with relatives and friends settled in the United States. “Today, the young are no longer interested in how to build boats,” the bilal laments. The old boat was therefore discarded for the new one,which was made outside of the village by Khmer craftsmen.
The same story is heard in Chruy Changvar, a bit further on the same riverbank. “The new law in force has made it impossible to get the wood to come here, so close to Phnom Penh,” a 40-year-old Cham fisherman explains on a guarded note. He will do some paddling for his team this year again. “The wood is cut in Kampong Thom and is then carved by Khmer,” he adds. These non-Muslim craftsmen usually perpetuate rituals to worship the forest spirits, which appears at first to be a little at odds with Islam’s monotheism. But the possible confusion does not trouble the fisherman-rower. “The central thing here is that we Muslims show our respect to Allah,” he insists. It is therefore in the village that the boat gets painted and decorated with more adequate representations. The nagas vanish to be replaced with many flower patterns. Another athlete explains that the painting of eyes on the front of the boat to “awaken”it is also forbidden as it can result in the association with a spirit that can take human shape. An embarrassing moment follows when he realizes that eyes have been painted on his long boat. But one of his rowing partners proves more down-to-earth. “You want to take the eyes off the boat?! Have you ever seen a blind fish dash to victory?!”, he exclaims.
It seems that eyes and God were a successful combination. This year, the “Baksei Chamkrong” got its beauty back thanks to the US cousins… and made it to the first place. The result is the pride of the Cham in Chruy Changvar, but it is no surprise. Cham were already depicted in boats on the bas-reliefs of the Bayon temple and they were so famed for their rowing skills that they used to be recruited for ages to steer the barques of the Royal Palace. This position of privilege ended with the protectorate and the introduction of other means of transportation.
But on the other side of the peninsula, the scope of this reputation is put back into perspective although many rowers for the royal court originated from there. A short mischievous man with a small pointed goatee and a turban on his head jumps on a dragonboat that is to sail to the four arms. He is the hakem, the leader of the mosque. It is the time to wish for good luck, so he delivers a blessing that combines Arabic, Cham and Khmer languages. “May we make only one wish, but may God grant us ten!”, he pronounces. But he already imagines the worst on his hissing microphone, “May we not be carried away by jealousy. May winners and losers rejoice without hating one another. May the shame of losing not drawn you!”
With only 200 families, the little village – located behind the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority – is struggling to collect the funds necessary for a competitive long boat and athletes while the competition is growing. “In the past, there were not so many participants,” a regular spectator noted in 2006.
In 2008, the “Dara Santchei Rasmei Mekong” was even unable to join the races because the boat was too tired. “But next year, I am confident that we will definitely receive donations at last, so we can pay for the overhaul of our dragonboat and good food for the rowers,” the passionate hakem says with hope. A basic fact offers promise, “The chaew [rowing while standing] style is really a Cham specialty, our speciality. The Khmer struggle with it and prefer the Om Tuk [rowing while sitting].”
However, one exception – and not the least – confirms the rule, yet again in Chruy Changvar, near the bridge. There was a long boat in another mosque. Although it was renowned, it was getting old. And so were its pilots in light of the lack of interest of the younger generation. This asked for a reaction and it is precisely a local youth who – after earning some good money – bought the “Bopha Keang Khleang” and gave it back its strength and gilt as well as dynamic rowers… female ones. Not only is the boat one of the rare to be steered by women, but its Cham owner went to look for them in Koh Touch, a very Khmer island.
“I did not want the village to stop participating in the races. But, no one wanted to join anymore, not even the local women. People are too busy with their business here because we are close to Phnom Penh,” he explains. So, this self-improvised trainer went to recruit some fifty female water warriors who already enjoyed solid reputation in their region. “That’s how we were able to set up the only female Chaew team! There has been no other one. So, we can now say that women can do Chaew just like men!”
Their long boat approaches the pier and seems in a hurry to start the race. The young female rowers are getting impatient and do not seem troubled that they did not make the traditional offerings of incense, bananas or music on the front of their boat to ensure their protection. “We are not afraid,” a tall woman hurriedly explains while motioning to the owner that time is going to run out. Those eager to talk about feminism with the man who put all his heart into this boat will have to wait. He is going to pray Allah and ask that his dragonboat dash like a naga… unless it is a nagi.
Going further :
On dragonboats, their making and their symbolism :
Daniel Alain, 1967, “Etude sur une pirogue de course” (“Study of a race dragonboat”), Annales de l’Université Royale des Beaux Arts, No. 1, pp. 79-98. (available at the library of the National Museum in Phnom Penh)
On Cham customs in general :
… and a few lines on the tradition of fishing boats in particular:
Aymonier Etienne, 1891, “Les Tchames et leurs religions” (“The Cham and their religions”). Revue d’Histoire des Religions, Vol. XXIV, pp. 187-315. (can be downloaded on the AEFEK website).
On the privileges conferred to the Royal Palace rowers :
The most daring ones may venture into the records of the office of the Resident Superior at the National Archives of Cambodia…
This chronicle is from the Chams Clichés Backup Series.
Originally published: Issue 4 – November, 2008
Ithaca, November 15, 2013, Emiko Stock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.