Wednesday, September 27, 2017


Thousands of Khmers crowd the riverfront for the dragon boat races
I’m leaving Cambodia soon, and a huge crowd has gathered. A mass of humanity stretches for several blocks. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Southeast Asia.

But this isn’t a riot. And it’s not a political rally. Thousands and thousands of Khmers, many with their families, have come to the Phnom Penh riverside to watch the dragon boat races.

Over 300 colorful dragon boats, resembling long outrigger canoes, from all over the country will race and compete for glory and honor on the river. Farmers from far flung provinces have just completed harvesting their fields, and traveled all the way here to celebrate or participate.

2 - 3 dozen men crowd into each dragon boat, all wearing matching colored t-shirts. A flag bearing the number of their rowing team flies off the back of each, flapping in the wind as each strong stroke by the crew drives them towards the finish line.

The dragon boat races are part of the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh
Dragon boats have a long history in Cambodia. The event commemorates a legendary naval battle during the reign of King Jayavarman VII. This Khmer King that reigned over Angkor Wat led them to victory on the waters against the neighboring Cham empire.

Taking place over 3 days in November, the dragon boat races are part of the annual Water Festival, marking the time when the Mekong River downriver swells, and the Tonle Sap River that meets it reverses its course. Upriver becomes downriver.

Like everything else that was popular, fun and traditional in Cambodia, this festival was banned during the Khmer Rouge communist years. It was revived in 1990, and the festival and races have grown exponentially ever since.

I attended a wedding in Phnom Penh before, and that was also a joyous occasion. But this huge festival gives me a different feeling.

More than 300 dragon boats take part in the races on the Tonle Sap River
As I watch families enjoy the festival, I get a vibe that I have never felt in Cambodia before.

Mass happiness.

In my six months here in Cambodia, I had spent much of my time traveling through the old war zones, speaking to survivors. These people had survived oppression under the French, the civil war with the Lon Nol dictatorship, war against the Vietnamese, and worst of all, the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Talking to these resilient survivors about those horrible days was not cheerful work.

But here at the dragon boat races, I sense the happiness that the people of Cambodia truly deserve. This is their festival. Done by them, for them. It’s a purely Khmer tradition that they can all enjoy.

That night, I return to the riverside, and see another unexpected sight. Elaborately lighted boats. Decorated with thousands of what westerners would call ‘Christmas tree lights’, thousands of bulbs form huge floating figures, such as nagas and other Buddhist icons. Impressive.

Lighted boats illuminate the river at night during the Water Festival
To close the event, the night sky lights up with fireworks over the lighted boats and barges.

As I leave Cambodia, I’m glad that this festival is my last experience in this fascinating country. 

The Khmer people I’ve met during my time here have endured the worst, but this country is on the upturn.

There are problems, to be sure. But they are at peace.

Their darkest days are behind them. I hope so. I pray so.

I can feel it. There is hope for the future here.

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