The boat race that celebrates the moon

(No.4, Vol.8,Aug-Sep Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A ngo boat race, An Giang Province, 2011
Photo: Nguyen Minh Tan

Building ngo boat
Photo: Dinh Cong Tam

Worshipping to the ngo boat before racing
Photo: Dinh Cong Tam

Ok om Bok festival, aka the Moon festival, is a tradition of Khmer communities in the 13 provinces of the Mekong River delta of Vietnam. It is celebrated on the full moon of the 10th lunar month each year to show the Khmer people’s gratitude to the God of the Moon for having granted them rich crops and happiness.
Above all, the Moon festival in Soc Trang, recognized as a ‘national intangible cultural heritage’ contains Khmer culture-rich activities such as moon worship ritual, flying lamps release, floating lamps release, songs and dances, sportive, fair, sportive games and most notably the ngo boat race.
Owned only by Buddhist temples and considered a sacred object, the ngo boats have been always a part of life of Khmer communities in the Mekong River delta.
Originally ngo boats were hewn from a big log of precious wood. They are 27m long, 1.1m wide, with long ends that curve upward making the boat look like a cresent. The bowels have 24 open compartments, each wide enough for two oarsmen to sit inside. Dragons, tigers, flowers and leaves are painted along the body of the boat to express the ‘character’ of its owning temple and the racing team.
Nowadays ngo boats are built from many planks because big logs are usually unaffordable. But somehow the boat builder manages to make the new boat look the same as the old ones that some temples still possess.
New or old, all ngo boats have to go through three sacred rituals of starting the hewing, finishing the hewing and dressing to be eligible for races. After the rituals, the ngo boat becomes a temple’s posession of a temple and is kept on its premises.
Near the date of Ok om Bok, the temple clergy, the race team and the villagers contribute offerings and conduct the launching ritual for the boat. They pray to the deities asking for strength and luck to win the race. Having done so, under rolls of drums and gongs, the race team carries the ngo boat on their shoulders to the river bank and puts it down to the water. From that moment on, the strong men of the team begin a strict training program under the supervision of old-time racing champions.
The boat launching and racer training take place almost at the same times in all participating villages of Soc Trang, heating the festive mood in the whole region.
On the festival day, all the ngo boats of Khmer buddhist temples gather at the Maspero River section in Soc Trang City.
On each boat, besides the 48 oarsmen, there are three comanders. One sits at the prow to control the paddling technique of the whole team. Two others sit at the middle and the stern to control the paddling rythym by whistling and spurring on the oarsmen.
At the start signal, all the boats rush forward, trying to reach the finish line, which is 1200m away. Muscular arms acting in unison, rythmically thrusting paddles down the water and pushing it back to propel the boat forward, that’s certainly a sight to see!

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