The boat racing festival in Sainyabouli (also spelled Xaignabouli or Sayaboury) is celebrated in mid-October – a few weeks after Luang Prabang’s own race and about a week before Vientiane. The festival has deep roots into Laos’ royal heritage and is held each year at the end of Buddhist Lent, which sees the end of the monk’s three-month rain retreat.
The boat racing festival is the main time of year for family reunions in Laos and plays a similar role as the Christmas and New Year holidays in the West. For a week or so the small town of Sainyabouli wakes up to the lively arrival of hundreds of family members and visitors from other parts of Laos, as well as from Thailand and beyond. Street stalls line the main road as vendors from Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Thailand and China hope to profit from the sudden flow of holiday-minded people.
In preparation for the actual race, each village’s (or neighborhood’s) long naga-shaped boat is given a fresh coat of colorful paint after having spent the year stored at its local Buddhist temple. Then, for a week or so, practice races are held on the glittery waters of the Nam Houng river, swelled from the monsoon rains. The practice races are almost as popular as the actual event and residents from each village cheer their team as they show their raw physical talent.
Moreover, no Lao festival would be complete without the traditional competition to find the town’s “Miss Boat Racing” among each village’s most beautiful female teenager dressed as an elegant royal princess from the country’s past. The pageant competition is the event that finally launches the two-day boat racing festivities.
The Night Festivities
During the evening of the first day are the night festivities. Each village has built a boat made of wood, bamboo, paper and banana leaves expressing the artistic talent and cultural traditions of Laos. These artificial boats, all lit with numerous candles and decorated with multicolored balloons, are paraded on the main road, with their creators chanting and playing music, walking all the way to the river. There, each boat is sent down the flows where judges select the best ones in terms of creativity, originality and respect for Lao traditions.
While the fake bamboo boats slowly float down the river, villagers send their own individual miniature boats made of banana leaves and lit with a candle or two. The river becomes dotted with sparkling lights gently drifting down, representing evil spirits being sent away – people’s souls purified by water. Soon, the speckled lights on the river are mirrored in the sky by ceremonial weightless white paper bags being sent up in the air by small burning flames fixed inside them. With the water and the sky illumined in such a fashion, the concluding fireworks transform the whole scene into a breathtaking sight of light, color and brightness on the dark background of the clear, warm night.
The Actual Race
There are two races. The women’s race is held on the same day as the nigh festivities and the men’s race is the next day. Each team compete two-by-two – in front on thousands of people on both sides of the river – in an eliminative manner, until only two teams are left. The atmosphere is both festive and tense, as big bets have been cast on several favorite teams. River-side restaurants and beer gardens are operating at full capacity and each time a race begins everyone’s attention is drawn to the river. Between each race, comic relief is provided by rafts full of drunken, chanting, crazy-acting drag queens.
Once the race is over, there is still one more night to shop for clothes, jewelry or kitchenware at the numerous stalls or to go party and dance at one the river-side outdoor discos, either to celebrate the winning team or to drown lost bets with cool, ice-diluted Beer Lao.