The rainy season has finished and the Mekong is receding, so we’re into, what else, the dry season. Those are the only two real seasons in Vientiane, though there might be a decent autumn farther north in the country, but nothing like New England, for example. It will start to get quite cool at night next month, a faux winter compared to more northern climes, but if you’re used to low temperatures in the high 70s, then the low 60s and mid 50s seem quite chilly.
Though there are more boat races leading to the national championships in Oudomxay (far north of here) in November, the big Vientiane Boat Racing Festival was held on Thursday, October 9th. Almost all of the city shut down for the day: the banks were closed; the Laos government offices were closed; the public schools were closed and even the U.S. Embassy was closed. I say almost all, because at least one institution was open for business as usual-Vientiane College. Yeah, we had to work that day. I was deeply disappointed by the college’s decision to not take the day off. It wouldn’t have been all that difficult, in my opinion, to tack on an extra day at the end of the term to make up for the lost time, but that wasn’t done. I still enjoy working there, but my formerly high opinion of it has gone down a few notches.
Despite that, I did spend a few hours at the festival area along the Mekong before I had to show up for my classes. It was hot, noisy, crowded and dirty, but I enjoyed it. I didn’t actually get to see any races, but the spectacle wasn’t confined to the boats. Fa Ngum road, the one-way street along the Mekong, is usually congested with vehicles, but on this day, and the preceding three, it was closed to normal vehicular traffic, leaving pedestrians the freedom to stroll on the pavement.
Well, not quite. It was extremely crowded, so a stroll was more like a crawl. On both sides of the road, vendors of all sorts of products were allowed to set up under awnings to display their goods. Many sold mundane items like shoes, shirts, hats, brassieres (!), and housewares, while others noisily hawked cosmetics, cell phones, computers and various items of high-end fashion. The cacophony of the hucksters and ear drum-busting music coming over the high wattage speakers was almost unbearable in places. It took around thirty minutes to make the half-a-kilometer-long walk.
There were a couple of good places to view the races. One was the VIP viewing area, closed off to all but high-ranking military personnel and government officials. The other good spot was at the roof top Bor Pen Nyang bar, four floors up, overlooking the river. However, 50,000 kip (about $6.25) was being charged to go there. I think there were a couple of drinks and snacks included in the price. I suppose I could have paid and sat up there in the shade for a few hours, but I wanted to walk around the festival area. I did manage to persuade the two guys collecting the payment to let me go up for a few minutes to take a few photos.
At another area of the Mekong, a bit removed from the race area, a few stages with seating in front had been set up. On one stage, a band composed of westerners was playing rock music to a full house sitting in the shade of umbrellas, and on another a Lao band was performing Lao pop music.
Past the stages, a carnival midway of sorts featured various rides, including four bumper car setups, two small ferris wheels, a small kiddie roller coaster and other attractions.
I don’t know when the festival will be held next year since it is scheduled according to the lunar calendar and is held near the end of the Buddhist Lent period. The race itself is held on the day after the end of Lent. This year the final day of Buddhist Lent, Boun Awk Phansa, was on Wednesday. During this final day of Lent, most people visit the temples, bringing food for the monks, and make “fire” boats with banana trunks and leaves, flowers and candles to float at night on the Mekong. I have some photos of these small boats which I’ll put up on my next post in a few days.