Unique Culture of Khmer Ethnic People

Published:  02:34 Tuesday - May 14, 2013 For the Khmer ethnic people the ceremony of launching the boat called Ghe ngo is a special event. A Ghe ngo is launched only once a year to participate in the Ok Om Bok Festival. After the ceremony it is taken ashore and preserved. This practice has become a unique cultural feature with both traditional and spiritual characteristics.

Once, we went from Ho Chi Minh City to Soc Trang Province to visit a friend. For us, the reporters, it is very interesting to participate in the festivals to learn about the cultures and people in different areas. My Khmer ethnic friend asked us: “You have watched the Ghe ngo race, right? Do you know the Ghe ngo launching ceremony?” All of us shook our heads with curiosity on our faces.

The Ok Om Bok Festival takes place in Mid-October of the lunar calendar. Before the Ghe ngo is taken to participate in a race at the festival, the hamlets and pagodas of the Khmer group usually organize a worshipping ritual on the Ghe ngo’sbow (locally known as Pith Sene Kbal Tuok) to launch the boat. The Khmer people consider Ghe ngo their genie who protects their peace. It is the embodiment of the strength of the hamlet, so it is carefully preserved and placed in the most solemn place in the hamlet. The Ghe ngo launching ceremony has a special role, showing the belief of the Khmer people in the spiritual element and the power of the supernatural force which is decisive to the success or failure of the boat in the race. 


Before the launching ceremony, the rowers stand along the boats for a traditional ritual.

During the ceremony, the sorcerer and the head of the rowers must constantly burn 
incense and offer tea on the altar and the bow of the boat.

A Ghe ngo procession.

The villagers attend the Ghe ngo launching ceremony at Sro Lon Pagoda.

The time and date of launching the boat is decided by each hamlet and is suitable to the feng-shui and the worshipping object of the hamlet. At Sro Lon Pagoda in Dai Tam Commune, My Xuyen District, Soc Trang Province, the boat launching ceremony starts in the early morning. The main offering of the ceremony is Slath thor made of a coconut fruit (Slath thor Don) or a banana trunk (Slathor Chek) for planting the incense and candles. Before the ceremony is conducted, the sorcerer places the Slath thor at the positions of the rowers along the hulls of the boat. Trays of cakes, fruit and a pig’s head or poultry are placed at the bow, middle and stern of the boat, depending on each pagoda. The competing participants stand around the boat. The chief monk of the pagoda or a member of the management board works as the master of the ceremony. He prays for the Ghe ngo-protecting genie to accompany the boat to help it win the race. After that, the chief monk brings a jar of water with the scent of flowers and walks around the boat to splash the water over the boat rowers, wishing peace and strength for them.

After the water splashing ritual, the sorcerer will conduct the boat worshipping ceremony. First, he conducts the musical performance. Each ritual musical band consists of 5-7 people who play the Khum, Chapay Don veng, flutes, drums, two-chord fiddles and gongs. The performance takes place 3-5 times before the singing ritual starts. The singing ritual consists of Sene Kru (worshipping the superior), chom rieng berk both Tuk Ngua (prelude) and Run Tua (chorus). Depending on the worshipping object of each hamlet the sorcerer will sing according to this symbol. The Ghe ngolaunching ceremony often lasts one or two hours. When the ceremony finishes, the competing boat rowers will launch their boat to row to the venue. 

The Ghe ngo of each hamlet has its own symbol of strength. The selection of the boat’s symbol is related to the traditional conception of each hamlet and pagoda. It represents the power of the boat and shows the strength of the boat. So the hulls, bow and stern of the boat are ornamented with decorative patterns with the colours suitable to the symbol of the boat. Each hamlet has its own symbol, such as the Neak (dragon), Khla (tiger), Dom Ray (elephant), Reach Cha Say (lion) and mermaid. Each Ghe ngo 
is protected by the genies, such as Srey Khmay, Konseng Sorya, Kontong Khiev, Chontiev Ok and Chon Tiev Tay. 


Carrying boats at the Ghe ngo launching ceremony.

Senior monks encourage the rowers before the race.

During the Ghe ngo race.

The Ghe ngo race at the Ok Om Bok Festival in Soc Trang Province.

The Ghe ngo launching ceremony has become a beautiful cultural feature in the spiritual life of the Khmer people. The hamlet residents gather at the boat with their respect to encourage the rowers and pray for peace, strength and protection from the genies. Today, the Ok Om Bok Festival in the Cuu Long River delta has become a common festival of the Kinh, Khmer, Hoa and Cham ethnic people, which helps strengthen and sustain community relations. 

Source: VNP
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