Boat racing in Laos is spectacular. Each year the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival (Boun Xuang Heua) is held in October following Boun Awk Phansa (the End of Buddhist Lent). This year the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival was held on Friday 6 October 2017 with heats starting in the morning around 9am. The race start and finish lines vary slightly from year to year as they are dependant upon the level of the Mekong River, but will always be held along the Mekong riverfront on Fa Ngum Road. A national holiday sees thousands of spectators, families and supporters flock to the Mekong to cheer on their teams and settle in for a day full of “muan” (enjoyment).
Dragonboat teams compete from all over Laos and are often sponsored by large organisations as the races are broadcast on Lao National television. The teams make their way to the river, usually flanked by supporters banging drums and singing enthusiastically. The usually quiet Mekong transforms into a hive of activity as dragonboat teams prepare for races, watertaxis travel up and down and local “restaurant boats” float nearby, complete with partygoers dancing to the everpresent Lao pop music.
Crowds begin to build, making their way into central Vientiane for the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival 2017.
At each entrance to central Vientiane town you will find security checkpoints to keep the day a family-friendly one. Local highschool students will give you a “patdown” – just remember females are required to go the female students and males to the male students! After getting through “security” and locking my bike up for the day, I headed down towards the river just outside of the starting lines as this is where I love to get in amongst the action. Teams are busy preparing for their heats and are in a jovial mood ready to pose for the camera.
Team Red give me the thumbs up as they prepare for their first heat
More rowers want in on the camera action!
Getting on the dragonboat as Team Red prepares for their first race
The heats start in the morning with a “knockout” type arrangement, whereby the winner of each heat goes on to the final races in the afternoon. The overall winner is presented with a large trophy and monetary prizes all live on National television – very prestigious! A boat racing team is usually made up of 50 men from the same village who have been practising for several weeks for this famous event. The boats themselves are sacred and, for the majority of the year are housed in the village temple, only to be brought out for practising in the weeks of Buddhist lent.
Good to go!
No more posing – Getting down to business
Rowers bowing in unison before racing showing respect for the Naga, the great serpent dwelling in the Mekong, the protector of Vientiane
All along the Mekong temporary awnings have been set up providing shade for the day for the rowers and supporters. Traditional music, including the banging of drums and cymbals, cheering and clapping encourages the competitors on the river.
An upturned boat becomes a handy vantage point for watching the boat races
Two dragonboats in full flight!
I don’t know how this team fared – but they look pleased with themselves!
Crowds line the Mekong Riverbank
Standing room only!
As the temperature climbed into the high 30s and became unbearable, it was time for me to climb onboard a local water taxi and head upriver to find some refreshments and get out of the sun.
Local water taxi
Remnants from last nights Boun Awk Phansa celebrations litter the Mekong
Grilled eggs on a stick
Khao ping or Khao gee cooking over a charcoal fire. This typical Lao dish of egg-dipped sticky rice patties is one of my personal favourites.
As Vientiane Boat Racing Festival concludes for 2017, I ponder whether next year I should join a “Falang” (foreigner) team and actually compete in the boat races … have you ever joined a dragonboat team?