While riding a motorbike through the tiny village of Thmae Kreae, I came across several men working on a dugout canoe. I pulled over to investigate and a young man explained that they were building a dragon boat for the upcoming Bonn Om Toeuk Festival.
The festival is in November, but they were starting now because the boats took so long to build. The 2 pieces they were working on at the moment would take a month to complete, he said. The festival is one of the largest celebrations in Cambodia, with over two million Cambodians crowding into Phnom Penh for feasting, concerts, fireworks, and canoe races on the Tonle Sap River. The festival celebrates the return of the monsoon rains and the beginning of the fishing season.
The insides of the canoe are chopped out with hatchets, then a fire is built underneath. As the wood heats up, it becomes pliable and the sides are stretched out to make the canoe wide enough. The sides are smoothed out with a belt sander, powered by a small gasoline generator.
While the smaller pieces would take a month to complete, I was told this monster section would take about three months of work. After the pieces are joined together, the boat will be decorated with carvings and painted. When finished, the dragon boat will be powered by 40 rowers in qualifying races here in the Kratie Province. The winning team will travel to Phnom Penh for the final race on the Tonle Sap. This team won the final race last year and are hoping to defend their title in November.