I’m back in Thailand, in Nong Khai, heading for Bangkok on Saturday on the overnight train. Not too much exciting has been going on, just taking it easy between rainstorms. A few weeks back, I went to a boat race north of Vientiane. Here’s what I wrote about it shortly after. (Sorry, no photos. The computer I’m on right now won’t let me upload any to my website. When I get to Bangkok, I’ll try to add some to this post.)

Nai’s small village, Ban Sitthanthai (ban=village), is renowned for the quality of its boat racers, the village having won the national championship the last two years and about half a dozen times in the past 10. The boats they race are sleek dugout canoes, more or less, but are about 30-40 meters long and are paddled by a crew of over 50. (Sorry, I looked for something on the web about them, but couldn’t find anything.)

We traveled over 40 kilometers north of Vientiane to watch a race featuring Sitthanthai racers, including Nai’s brother Ler and his cousin Thui. Though not a national championship race, which is basically the boat racing festival which takes place on the Mekong near Vientiane in October, its trophy was hotly contested for by about a dozen boats. The Sitthanthai crew, because of their reputation, was hired by another village, Ban Ling Xang, to man their boat in the race. (This coming week, they’ve been hired by a Thai boat owner to race his boat in a contest.)

After a one-and-a-half hour motorbike ride, we traveled 10 kilometers on a dirt road to the river, the Nam Neum. There we found an event that was equal parts carnival, street fair, concert and, yes, boat racing. Food vendors were abundant, selling grilled fish, chicken, pork, and beef, various other Lao foods and, of course, roast crickets. You could also buy 7-Up, Pepsi and other sodas or indulge in the national drink, Beer Lao. Lots of carnival style rides and games, like breaking balloons with darts, were available for the kids. Both sides of the river were lined with picnickers watching the races from the banks, while loudspeakers all around blared with music. Further down, at the judges’ stand, the public address announcer for the races competed with the cacaphony elsewhere. This somewhat frenetic sideshow added to the intensity of the races.

It seemed to be a double-elimination type of event–lose twice, and you’re out. One team lost its first 2 races easily, but seemed to be out more for the fun than for the trophy. They also appeared to have indulged quite a bit in their sponsor’s product before the racing even began. Their sponsor? Beer Lao.

The competition started about one o’clock and eventually ended about 5:30. The Sitthanthai guys had very little trouble beating each of their opponents. It was easy to see why, because their paddling was so much more synchronized and powerful than almost any other boat out there. I noticed, too, that the course, about a kilometer in length, was laid out going downstream. Several times I’ve watched the team practice on the Mekong, a 5-minute walk from Nai’s house. (Half the village, it seems, comes out each practice to watch their heroes.) These guys’ most intense workout comes in paddling against the current of the Mekong, so going downstream must have been a lark for them.

After each race, many of the boats would get a tow back upstream to the starting point, but the Sitthanthai crew always went back on their own power, as did some of the other boats. I watched quite a few of the early races and noticed another boat, from Ban Kunh, which was easily knocking off their challengers, always in sync, always going back on their own power. Like the Sitthanthai paddlers, they were also clad in day-glo green shirts. Half way through the competition, I felt that the championship race would be between the two green-shirted teams. It was.

The expectations and apprehensions were high, almost palpable, as the ultimate race began. Most of the spectators seemed to be rooting for the Sitthanthai boat. Because the start line was so far away, we could not immediately see which boat had the advantage. At about the mid point, it became clear that the crews were neck and neck. Further on, the Kunh boat began to take the lead. They started to draw away by about 30 feet, while the paddlers in each boat cranked away in unison. It was like watching two gigantic centipedes, legs working in unison.

The boats now drew near enough to see the sweat pouring down the faces of the crews, taut muscles straining to produce more power to the paddles, determination set in the intense faces and straining bodies. The crowds along the banks of the river were shouting and screaming, urging their favorites on, trying to give them the energy to overcome the Kunh lead. Now was the time for all those evening practices on the Mekong to pay off.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the Sitthanthai boat closed the gap. The crew picked up their pace, always precise and machine-like as one entity, rather than as 50 individual young men pushed to their limits. Another meter was gained, but the finish line was only 100 meters away now. Again, a meter, and another. We could sense that the Sitthanthai crew was going to come through, that strength, stamina, skill and superior training were going to carry the day. 50 meters to go . . . 40 . . . 30 . . . The boats were even! Then a surge carried the Sitthanthai boat in front. The jubilation from the crowd followed the crew across the finish line, the boat a few bare meters in front of the Kunh entry. Victory! We waited expectantly for the judges’ confirmation. It came about 10 seconds later. What a race. The boat’s owners were given the championship trophy to parade around through the crowd, held aloft and touched by all, much like hockey’s Stanley Cup on-ice parade after the finals. Both crews made their way back along the river to the cheers of their admirers. It was a long ride back for us on the motorbike, but we didn’t care.

As a side note, I was told yesterday that the village has hired a legendary Thai trainer to help the team. Perhaps that victory was too close!

(Check back here in a week or so, when I hope to have posted some photos and videos.)