Water Festival: Why Do People Believe Racing Boats are Spirits?

Oarsmen race their boat during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh on November 26, 2023. Photo: Lay Long

KANDAL PROVINCE – Decorated with eyes and hair, racing boats are more than just a means of transport. People believe they are also spiritual beings.

This belief takes centre stage during the annual Water Festival as racing boats are taken out of storage, worshipped, refurbished and blessed. Rowers also believe that victory may be determined by the spirits.

ThmeyThmey News journalist Heng Sreylin interviewed Both Piseth, a member of the managing committee of Pichey Riangsey pagoda in Kandal province.

ThmeyThmey News journalist Heng Sreylin (R) interviewed Both Piseth (L), a member of the managing committee of Pichey Riangsey pagoda in Kandal province.

Heng Sreylin: How do people interact with the spirit of their racing boats?

Both Piseth: Basically, every racing boat is inhabited by spirits. This is because the trees that we used to make the wood for the boat were also inhabited by spirits. Trees are like their houses. So, during the race, we have to conduct blessing ceremonies to ensure that our rowers are safe from the moment they start to the moment they finish. We also offer them perfumes and scent powders. Since the ancestral time, these practices are carefully kept.

Heng Sreylin: So, the spirits were there since before the boat was made?

Both Piseth: Yes, they were living in trees. Before the trees can be made into wood, we also conduct spiritual ceremonies to invite the spirit to the boat. When we offer them blessing, they also return to us their blessing. This coexistence brings everyone good luck.

Heng Sreylin: Are spirits usually associated with female or male gender?

Both Piseth: Normally, 80 percent of the spirits are female and the rest are male. We know this because spirits can appear in rowers’ dreams. Rowers with deep attachment to the boats may face this phenomenon.

Water Festival Returns after COVID-19

After being postponed for a number of years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Water Festival will resume between November 26 and 28.

The biggest boat races will be at the Four-Faced river in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh with smaller races in local areas at different times.

To learn more about the Water Festival and its related stories, Ky Soklim, a senior journalist of ThmeyThmey News, interviewed Professor Ang Choulean, a renowned ethnologist of the APSARA National Authority.

Read more:

The Origin of the Water Festival

Lantern and Rice Flake Festival: An Old Celebration for Youth?

Conducted in Khmer for ThmeyThmey News, this story was translated by Luy Sirey Reaksa for Cambodianess News.

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