One of the most interesting events you can witness in Laos is the Boat Racing Festival- Boun Xuang Heua– taking place in many towns and villages across the country from the late August till early October- at the period coinciding with the Buddhist Lent. Two most important races happen at the beginning (in Luang Prabang) and at the end (in Vientiane) of this period.
Festival in honour of the nagas
The festival is held during the monsoon period in honor of the nagas, water snake-like dragons which are protectors of Laos. The long, wooden boats cut from a single log of a tree which are used during the races belong to the villages and are normally stored at the temple grounds.
Small village festival
Sadly, we couldn’t watch the main race in Luang Prabang which was about to happen after our visa would expire. We could at least experience this festival in its more modest version, happening in a Hathian village just outside Luang Prabang. Those races weren’t held on the Mekong itself but on its tributary- Nam Khan river.
The village where the festival was taking place couldn’t be found on Google maps but it was marked on Maps.me and we could find it on the map we got from the tourist info. It was drizzling in the morning and we couldn’t decide whether we should rent a bicycle, get a tuk-tuk or just walk the 5 km distance. As we forgot the passports (necessary to rent a bike) and there were no tuk-tuks around, we settled on walking.
I was hoping to see the boat blessing ceremony at the wat but as we decided to walk we arrived too late for that. The racing was supposed to start at 12 pm so we still had a couple of hours.
Quite a lot of locals had already started gathering at the vantage point on top of the hill and directly at the banks. We were lucky to get the best spot on the hill. We sat on a log under the roof sheltering unused boats.
Although we were the only tourists in that small village, we were treated with a complete indifference from the locals. Nobody asked us who we were, what were we doing there, we didn’t even heard a single sabadee (hello). It was very weird as the place definitely wasn’t used to tourists. We felt as if we didn’t exist.
We watched the teams getting onto their long and narrow boats. There were around 20 people on each boat and 8 teams in total, each wearing differently coloured T-shirts. For the next couple of hours, the rowmen were moving up and down the river, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, clearly practicing before the race. Then, the downpour began and all the teams went onshore.
Unexpected free meal
There was a small dining hall at the temple where the rowers as well as locals were eating some packed food. We were getting hungry and we wondered how much longer we’d need to wait for the race. That was the moment when one of more senior rowers asked us in fluent English whether we came for racing and if we were hungry. We confirmed and hoped to have a longer chat but he just passed two boxes of food to us and disappeared.
I was quite sure it was going to be vegetarian, since the food was consumed at the temple premises but it wasn’t. It was just a large blob of sticky rice, chilli sauce and- thankfully separately- a few pieces of pork. I passed pork to Sayak and did my best not to get set on fire eating the rice with chilli. Yet, I was thankful to have a free meal which filled me up.
After another long wait, the races finally began. They took a form of duels between two teams. The winning team would move to the next round.
We were amazed how much energy those rowers must have had as they covered the same route, paddling upstream and downstream at least 10 times throughout the day! We also felt pity for those guys, completely soaked, freezing their asses for the entire day.
Among the audience, there were monks, men, women and children of all ages. Some came by boat and followed the race from the water. There wasn’t awfully much cheering going on. Just a small group of people on the other side of the river made some noise, sang and clapped.
In a word, the whole event was a bit underwhelming but still worth having a look. By 3 pm we grew tired of seeing the same thing over and over again – we didn’t have the patience to see the winner. It was a bit of a shame since I’d love to know what could be the price for this superhuman effort. We have no doubt the main events in Luang Prabang or Vientiane would be organised with more pomp and perhaps more geared towards tourists.
You can find up-to-date calendar of the boat racing (or any other festival) at the tourist information centre in Luang Prabang. The events take place all over Laos but the biggest one takes place in Luang Prabang itself in the end of August or beginning of September (depending on the year).
Hathian – the village we visited- was located very near to the Luang Prabang airport, so getting a tuk tuk for 20 000 kip shouldn’t be too difficult (also for a return journey if you get on the main road).