Tag Archives: Dragonboat festival

ASEM9 and Boatracing

The past month in Vientiane has been far from routine.  For the past few months, Vientiane has been preparing to be the host of a significant international meeting, ASEM 9 (Asia-Europe Meeting), an event that brings together heads of state to discuss international and regional issues on the two continents.  Past host cities include Brussels, Beijing, Helsinki, Hanoi, Copenhagen, Seoul, London, and Bangkok–among which Vientiane seems strikingly out of place.  Not surprisingly then, hosting the summit here was a big, big deal for Laos.

In the months leading up to the meeting, the whole city got a facelift, with massive construction projects seemingly popping up overnight, mostly a myriad of hotels and convention centers to accomodate the delegates and other foreign visitors.  Sidewalks were painted, and roads were repaved (although only the ones that the VIPs would drive on, the potholes notably growing bigger elsewhere in the city).

The preparations occurred on every level.  Last term I taught a class of drivers for the conference under a special grant by the Australian government.  The drivers, along with staff in all sorts of departments, were trained in English in preparation for the conference.  My class, a group of men mostly in their 40s and 50s, had little to no English as their starting point, and thus made slow progress in our three months together, but they were all good sports and enthusiastic learners.  They would have translators during the summit, so they would have to speak little English in reality.  But if their confidence was raised just to be able to politely greet a delegate, I consider it a success.

New ASEM Villas and hotel in the background of this Mekong skyline.

Starting in October a country-wide curfew closed in.  Although technically there is always a curfew here, it typically goes without enforcement, with handfuls of late-night entertainment venues and snack stands that stay open after midnight.  But as ASEM and the need for a tranquil facade closed in, all shops were mandated to close on time, and the after-hours police presence was significantly ramped up.

Just as the preparations began to reach completion, however, they were interrupted by a call for festivities.  The time for the Vientiane boatracing festival, which coincides with ork pansa (the end of Buddhist Lent) fell on Halloween this year, just five days before the meeting was to begin.  Boatracing consists of a week-long carnival along the river, culminating in the races themselves, on the last day.  It usually coincides with the end of the rainy season in Laos (which was particularly short and dry), and ironically coincided exactly with the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy in the US this year.  While rains pummeled the American East Coast, boats raced along a parched river to celebrate changing of seasons.

The Beerlao Music Zone.

Perhaps because of the prior month-long curfew, the festivities this year seemed even crazier than usual (you can still read my account of 2010 and 2011 boatracing), as everyone was blowing off steam shopping at the carnival or partying at the riverside Beerlao Music Zone.  The nights of the festival turned the downtown area into a gridlock, with pedestrians picking their way around cars and motorbikes, with Totoro-shaped balloons, and the smells of sweetened sticky rice and dried squid mixing with multitudes of other festival perfumes in the air.

Spectators watching the boats warm up in front of a sign announcing ASEM 9.

But just as the festival seemed even more frenetic in the past, the cleanup also happened significantly faster, and the clean, quiet, policed pre-ASEM life resumed immediately after the last cans of Beerlao were swept up and the dragonboats returned to their villages for another year.

Crowds on boatracing day.

The meeting itself occurred on November 5-6, and not surprisingly anything that might obstruct traffic on the way to the meetings, like schools, was shut down for the week.  Thus, I got a bonus week off of work, as the road was closed off for the meeting, and escaped to Luang Prabang for some relaxation, while 51 heads of state descended upon Vientiane.

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Boat Racing Festival 2011

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.

Start of Saturday practice.

Everyone likes to watch practice...

Halfway to Thailand.

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.

Riverside crowds on raceday.

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.

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Dragonboat Festival

The festivities surrounding the end of Buddhist lent and Dragonboat racing had been underway all last week, but peaked this past weekend, when the entire road along the river was shut down and mobbed with people shopping, eating, drinking, and playing carnival games.  The street and riverbank was covered with tents and vendors of every sort, despite the fact that it remains a construction site.  The piles of loose bricks and unfinished sidewalks were just minor obstacles for the thousands of people who flocked to the Mekong for the weekend.  When fighting the crowd became too exhausting, eating and drinking were the main activities.  I spent awhile sitting at the Namkhong beer tent (one of Beerlao’s only competitors here), where there was a live band and dancers.  I also sampled a few sticky rice desserts, and enjoyed a “drink in a bag,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  If you order a soda to-go from a street vendor, they’ll pour it out into a small ice-filled plastic bag with a straw for your mobile enjoyment.  Somehow the novelty of this makes it much more delicious than drinking from a glass.  On the street, shops were selling anything and everything, with the fancier tents, like the cellphone companies, blasting music to compete for attention.  Carnival games were set up on the grounds of a temple downtown, which was a strange juxtaposition, with monks accepting donations as a reminder of the holiday’s origins, but with balloon-popping and ring toss games all around.  The prizes for the games seemed quite funny–a few of the typical stuffed animals, but mostly juice boxes, energy drinks, and bottles of soda.

lanterns floating down the Mekong

On Saturday night, after a delicious dinner at Chinese Dumplings (one of the essential Vientiane restaurants), I visited the river with some of my PiA friends.  Though the games and revelry were still going on this was the slightly more traditional evening of the festival.  We bought small lantern-boats made of banana leaves and flowers, with candles on top, and carried them to the riverbank, where everyone was releasing lanterns to float downstream.  A little ways upriver from here, floating lanterns were being released, which were mesmerizing as they slowly moved across the sky.  Amidst the crowd, amateur fireworks and sparklers were being set off right and left, often by small children, who waved fireworks twice the size of their bodies.

Sunday was the actual boat race day, and we got up early to stake out a spot at Spirit House, an ex-pat hangout with tables along the river and delicious Western food.  Over breakfast and mimosas, we watched the boats go by every few minutes.  Each boat team was associated with a certain village, and sported neon t-shirts with the names of their sponsors.  The race seemed fairly disorganized, there was no sure way of knowing which boats were racing when, but it was still exciting to watch the brightly-colored teams speed along the river.

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Riverside Festivities

This weekend is the annual Dragonboat Festival, a holiday celebrating the end of Buddhist Lent with boat racing on the river and a carnival set up along the riverside.  The festivities have slowly been gaining momentum, with vendors, rides and games, set up along the river road all this week.  I walked around during lunch yesterday to check out what was going on, and was overwhelmed by tent after tent selling anything and everything one could possibly want.  For sale: new cars, grilled animal parts, blenders, clothing, diapers, kitchen utensils, pillows, and groceries, among many other things.  Tonight and tomorrow I’ll probably go back to shop, join the party, and maybe try my hand at some of the games or the bumper cars.  One of my housemates is going to be rowing in the women’s international team on Sunday, so we’ll all be by the riverbank cheering her on and enjoying our first Lao holiday.

A construction site and an intense moonbounce.

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