|All aboard: A boat racing team speed to victory during the Ngo boat race last year. This year's race will start today. — Photo soctrang.gov.vn
SOC TRANG (VNS)— Prayers for good health, prosperity and happiness are the foundation for most festivals worldwide and it is no different for the Khmer community in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta.
The deities that grant these wishes play a central role in the lives of all communities, and for the Khmer, that deity is the Moon God.
The community prays to the Moon God every year for bumper crops, abundant fish and good health for all villagers.
Ok Om Bok, the annual festival that offers these prayers and expresses gratitude for the deity's blessings, opened in the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang last night. The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the tenth lunar month.
Although it is a Khmer festival, it is also celebrated wholeheartedly by Chinese-origin and Kinh residents of the province.
This year's festival, which local officials say is the largest ever, is a four-day event with many activities that are expected to attract hundreds of thousands of both local and international tourists.
Its highlight is the traditional ngo boat race that openes on November 16. Over the years, the race has become a premier regional event that many provinces in the Mekong Delta participate in.
This year, a record 62 teams (49 male and 13 female) from Can Tho City and the provinces of Soc Trang, Bac Lieu, Hau Giang, Kien Giang, Vinh Long, Ca Mau and Tra Vinh will participate in the 1,000m race for women and 1,200m race for men.
Winners of both races will receive a prize of VND200 million (nearly US$10,000) each.
As a sacred object of the Khmer people, every Ngo boat, which is 24m long and 1.2m wide and can seat 40 people, is made of wood by artisans and Khmer Buddhist monks.
The boats are decorated with images of dragons, tigers, elephants, lions and peacocks, representing their power to sweep away darkness and evil.
Vo Thanh Quang, director of the Soc Trang Department of Information and Communications, said this year's boat race festival attracted the largest number of teams from other provinces.
"We want to take the race into the international arena in the next two years with the participation of teams from other Southeast Asia countries," he told Viet Nam News.
Many visitors from other provinces are also excited about the boat race.
"Many of my friends from Can Tho City will come here to cheer us on," said Pham Quoc Cuong, 26, of Soc Trang Province.
Rituals of colour
As the full moon appears on the night of the festival, people place trays of offerings in pagoda's yards or their homes, typically containing green rice flakes, ripe bananas, coconuts and mangoes.
At the end of the ceremony, children of the house sit on the ground and clap their hands while they are fed a handful of green rice flakes by the elders.
The most colourful part of the festival is the flying of paper lanterns and floating of water-lanterns in the river.
Quang said this ritual was meant to sweep away the darkness and humidity of the rainy season.
Besides the ngo boat race, the festival has many other events including art performances and traditional sports and games.
For instance, there is a Kinh-Khmer-Chinese costumes competition that has attracted more than 50 contestants this year.
Another festival highlight is the Ok Om Bok Trade and Tourism fair 2013, which is held at the Ho Nuoc Ngot Exhibition Centre in Soc Trang.
This year the fair has nearly 600 booths, including 50 food stalls. The booths will display and sell a wide variety of farm produce, seafood, processed food and many consumer products until the end of this week.
In a related festive event, the first Southern Khmer du ke singing festival opened in Soc Trang early this week with the participation of nearly 500 artisans from six provinces.
Du ke is a popular form of folk art created Khmer residents of the Southwestern region.
The art has been nominated by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for recognition by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.
While it has its origins in Cambodia's royal dance, du ke has been influenced by cai luong (reformed theatre) as well as the singing style of the ethnic Chinese group in the region.
While the performance uses Khmer language, those who do not understand it can still understand the stories being depicted because of the actors' skills. — VNS