Back in July, my mom and I watched the ceremonies celebrating the beginning of Buddhist Lent (khao pansaa) at the Grand Palace. Two and a half months later, the season ended with traffic jams and balloon-popping games at the Mekong riverfront, in celebration of the Dragonboat Festival and the end of Lent (awk pansaa). The end of the rainy season, when the waters of the river surge at their highest, and the end of Lent, when monks can move freely from the temples again, come together around the full moon in mid-October for a week-long riverside celebration.
I spent the last few Saturdays leading up to my trip to Australia training with the mixed Lao-falang boat, made up half of international women and half of village women from Ban Saifong Neua, a few kilometers outside the city. After finishing class on Saturdays, I would head by car or tuk-tuk on the dusty, hour-long trip out to the village, where we all piled into the boat and battled the Mekong for a few sweaty hours. Upon our arrival, digital temple music would blare from village loudspeakers, announcing the arrival of the falang and the start of practice. Paddles were brought to the riverside, and all non-rowers in the village gathered by the shore to cheer, eat unnaturally-colored hotdogs, and drink Beerlao. We filed into the boat one by one, wading barefoot through the riverside sludge to find our place (the boat is considered part of the temple, so no shoes are allowed). The boat was nimble-looking, long and thin, astoundingly carved from a single sacred tree trunk.
Our trainer (coach? captain? It’s hard to say what the proper terminology is in this case) was a good-natured man named Kibu, who kept his commands in Lao simple–pai wai wai!–and had a limited, but comical command of English, which mostly consisted of “No stop! You stop, I kiss!” (He never followed through on these frequent threats, even though plenty of us, myself included, stopped during practice). Technically dragonboat racing is “paddling,” not rowing, because rowers sit two abreast, and hold their paddles (mai pai) much like canoe paddles. A good boat counts in time–neung, song, saam, sii–and moves in time, all rowers leaning forward in sync and striking the water in unison. Watching a good team makes it look easy. The neon rowers are a single unit, speeding their craft through the water. In reality, it was much harder work than I imagined. My arms and shoulders felt like spaghetti for the first two days after my first practice.
Unfortunately, I didn’t race with the team, because once returned from Australia, I realized that the race day was on a weekday and I had to work. The holiday revolves around the full moon, so the day of the week changes (last year it was on a Sunday), and VC only closes for the most important holidays (aka. Pi Mai Lao). Though I wasn’t in the boat on raceday, I still got up early to go to the tent and cheer on the ladies before class. They lost all their races, but no one really cared. It was a day fueled by blazing sunshine and sticky rice and splashes of Mekong Water.
All around the team’s tents, a carnival had been raging along the riverside for a week prior to the race, with games, moonbounces, and rickety-looking children’s rides. Booths were set up selling everything possible–massive stereos, dish detergent, cell phone batteries, undergarments. Traffic was oppressive, and except for the day of the race and the setting off of lanterns one night prior, I avoided getting ensnared in the craziness as much as possible. After I bid the team goodbye and headed to work, the sky opened up in a short-lived but intense downpour, as though the rain was asserting itself one more time before heading into its dry season slumber.