One of a few overdue blog posts. (Since my mom asked so nicely this morning!)
I had the opportunity to take part in an amazing, traditional Buddhist event a few weeks ago; I raced a sacred boat down the Mekong! The boat races take place during the Boun Souang Heua festival, as part of the celebrations marking the end of Buddhist lent. The majority of the teams that take place in the Vientiane Boat Race are comprised of Lao people from surrounding villages, although there is one co-ed international team. I joined the one ‘mixed’ team, made up of international women living in Vientiane and Lao women from a nearby village.
For the six weeks leading up to the festival, we would head out to the village once or
twice a week for training practices. Our arrival usually sparked a bit of activity in the village. People would wave and shout ‘Hello!’ as we drove in and generally quite a few onlookers would head on down to the banks of the Mekong to watch the spectacle.
Boat racing is a sacred activity. The 50-person dragon boats are carved from a single blessed tree that is chosen by monks and cut on a particular day. The boats are housed in village temples for most of the year and may only be practiced in during the weeks of Buddhist lent. Just as with a temple, you aren’t allowed to wear shoes in the boat. Before and after every practice, when everyone is seated in the boat everyone bows in unison, an act of respect for the Naga, the sacred serpent that inhabits and protects the Mekong.
Our practices were tough! The motion for rowing is unlike any I’ve done before. Essentially, you have to hold your paddle vertically, bend at the waist, plant your paddle, and rock back up to sitting (that’s me in the back!). The Lao women have all been doing this for years but the falang definitely got quite a workout every week. Our practices were made bearable, however, by our hilarious, pint-sized coach, Kibu. Kibu knew just a few choice English words of which “Don’t stop. You stop, I kiss” was a personal favorite. Despite the fact that someone inevitably stopped during each lap, he never followed through on the kisses. After practice, we would usually treat ourselves to some Pepsi in a bag (yes) from one of the mobile food vendors that had come down to the river. I was never brave enough to try the dried, flattened squid or grilled river snail, though.
October 12th marked the end of Buddhist Lent. I woke up at five and met up with the women to head out to the village. We were dressed up in our finest Lao-fashion, wearing the traditional Lao sinh skirt (ingenious…a post to come on this later) and scarves across our bodies. We were also loaded up with lots of fruit, juice boxes, mini-cakes and sticky rice–the alms that we would give to the monks at the village temple.
At the temple, we sat on rice mats, facing the monks. The ceremony that took place lasted about an hour and involved lots of chanting, lighting of candles and placing our alms in the overflowing baskets of the monks. I’m always a bit lost at Buddhist ceremonies, but I was so fascinated by all the young monks seated before me. You could tell that these young boys were trying very hard to sit still and look monk-like, but they were more antsy than I was! After the ceremony ended, we ate a huge breakfast complete with all my favorite Lao foods. I never considered myself much of a rice fan before coming to Asia, but sticky rice is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. And it makes a great breakfast staple.
That night, Kyle and I headed down to the river to watch people set off small, candle-lit banana leaf boats down the Mekong. It is said that these boats are an offering to the Naga. Downtown was insane. I had watched all of the stalls and stands and carnival rides and stages go up over the week, but that night, the entire riverfront and all adjacent roads were absolutely packed. It was an overwhelming scene, with people shouting into microphones advertising laundry detergent next to a stand with people shouting into microphones selling flip flops.
As I walked among the sea of people, I couldn’t help but marvel at the entire thing. Lao is a rapidly changing, growing country. I can only imagine what this event looked like 20 years ago when the country was relatively cut off from the rest of the world. We wandered along the riverfront, watching people make their way to the water to set off their boats as paper lanterns floated up into the night sky. All around us, people were setting off hand-held fireworks. It was one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m really here’ moments, for sure.
The next day was the big day, Boun Souang Heua. I woke up early and biked downtown, clad in my team shirt–long sleeve, of course. (I wasn’t about to try to get my motorbike through the insanity that had become the city!) When I arrived at the river, our Lao teammates were already at our tent with breakfast in hand! Breakfast consisted of sticky rice, spicy chili pepper-based dipping sauce and sun dried beef. I ate up. Some of my teammates who work for Lao Rugby told me sticky rice makes you strong.
We watched as some of the mens teams did warmup laps up and down the Mekong. Winning the boat race is a huge deal–it means a lot of money and prestige for your village. I was tired just watching them practice! Eventually, we got in our boat and rowed upstream. We pulled up on the edge of the Mekong and exchanged some friendly banter with the other female teams. ‘Sou, sou’ means something along the lines of ‘Fight, fight’ slash ‘Win, win.’ Everyone was so nice and friendly–they probably had a clue that we weren’t going to be much competition.
Then Kibu told us to start rowing and our steerers (two men who stand on the back of the boat) turned us to face downstream. We were rowing up to another boat with women in it, we were just about to pass them, we were racing! As if out of nowhere Kibu banged the boat with his oar– the signal to start rowing, and fast. As I frantically paddled, I felt a twinge of guilt. Hadn’t we just gotten a solid head start over that other team? My guilt quickly vanished though, as I saw the other team catch up to us and then pass us all in a matter of 30 seconds. 1.3 kilometers later, we had lost. By a lot.
We had two more races that day, each of which got progressively better! We lost all three, but they got better! In the last race, we actually had a chance of winning and our competitive spirit definitely kicked in as we raced neck and neck (or I should say, Naga and Naga) down the Mekong, as hundreds, if not thousands of people looked on from the banks of the Mekong. By the time we pulled in from our last race, I was completely drenched in river water and exhausted. The round of applause that we got from the crowd and our coach, was enough to put a huge smile on my face, though.