Racing on the Mekong

I’m finally getting my feet dirty and trying something truly local that isn’t food. Every year at the end of the three month long Buddhist lent, Vientiane gathers to celebrate the annual Dragon Boat Racing Festival. This year I’m going to need this public holiday as I will be in the race and women’s heats are traditionally scheduled first thing in the morning!

For about ten years, non-Lao women have been able to join the women’s boat racing team for one of the villages taking part in the race, Ban Sai Fong Neua. I was invited to join the team so here I am, with two practice sessions under my belt and hungry for many more until Race Day is upon us on October 13th. Traditional wooden boat and paddles, some 40-50 paddlers along with buckets of sweat and loud grunting are the essence of this rainy season sport. Training is twice a week on the Mekong some 40 minutes drive south of Vientiane where the village is.

It’s one of those sports that work the muscles you normally don’t even know exist, so you can imagine how completely out-of-shape I feel. After the first training I was barely able to lift a bottle of milk the next morning, and there were no upward bows for me at this morning’s yoga class thanks to our second practice session yesterday. But it’s great fun and surely all that hard work is building some muscle so that I can survive Race Day without collapsing!

Being part of a local team means taking part in the cultural traditions attached to boat racing. Closer to the race, the team will head to a temple for alms giving and there will also be a baci ceremony for the boat before the race. The cultural traditions also state that one must not wear shoes on the boat. Yesterday I ended up with five splinters on my foot as our barefoot descend down to the boat meant crossing some dried branches and other riverbank vegetation. I wonder if wearing socks would be considered inappropriate?

Next week I will miss both training sessions as I will be on holiday (yey for the holiday!) but I will be sure to let you know how it goes. If you are in Vientiane on Race Day, expect to see you cheering for us!

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