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Boat Races and Tragedies

Coming up next week, from the 26th to the 28th, is the annual Vientiane Boat Racing festival, with the boat race itself taking place on the 28th. Nai and I are going to Vientiane for the three days to take in the action and the controlled (somewhat) chaos of the festival. Last year, I had to work on the day of the race, but I managed to spend a few hours taking some photos.

This year, our mid-term break of nine days occurs next week. How nice! We’re going in on the 27th, and I plan to spend most of the day making some photos of the goings on, and, of course, catch some of the boat racing action the next day, so stay tuned for a future post.

The Saturday before last, on the 10th, we took in another boat race, the Laos-Thai Cultural Festival and Boat Race, near the Friendship Bridge, which straddles the Laos-Thailand border over the Mekong River. It was held next to the National Ethnic Cultural Park, and it had a good view of the river when I scouted the location the weekend before.

However, on the day of the race, I didn’t see a single boat! It was so crowded that I could barely see the river. We got a table next to a small food stall and we were only about 30 feet from the river, but there were so many people watching the race that it was impossible to see anything from where we were. I was suprised that some of the spectators didn’t get shoved down the embankment and into the river; the area was packed. Our location proved to be beneficial later when it started raining buckets. We were able to duck under the small restaurant’s awning, and we found a table with our friends Suwon and Noh.

It continued to rain off and on for much of the rest of the afternoon. I found out later that a Thai team had eventually won the race, though, tragically, another Thai boat team member collapsed and died in his boat during the race.

This particular race has a catastrophic history. Back in 2004, 15 Laotian women and one man drowned in the river when their boat overturned in the rough waters of that day. This was the first year the race had been held since then, and, even though many safety precautions were being taken, the collective breath was held that nothing tragic would happen. Unfortunately, the Thai man’s death has blighted this race again.

We didn’t find out about his death until a few days later, so our mood wasn’t dampened by the misfortune. Eventually, the rain let up and we sat ouside near the concert stage and watched the performers for a few more hours before finally calling it a day. Here are a few photos I took of the event.

Food–Some of the stuff that people were stuffing themselves with.
Lao crawfish

These small crab-like delicacies resemble southern crawfish, if I remember that long ago correctly. They’re freshwater creatures taken from the Mekong and boiled. For me, they’re too small and not worth the effort of digging out the meager amount of meat in them, but they were selling like hot cakes.

Grilled fish

Fish on the barbie! Man, these things are delicious, fresh from the Mekong and stuffed with herbs. I can, and sometimes do, eat a couple of them at one sitting.

Insect larvae

Many Lao people eat these insect larvae, as well as crickets and grasshoppers, like popcorn. Lest I be accused of stereotyping, I’ll say that not everyone cares for them, including me. I’ll have the grilled fish, please.

Suwon and friend

Our friend Suwon tries to interest a young girl in eating one of the larvae. The youngster looks somewhat less than enthusiastic about the idea. If my memory serves me correctly, she turned down the “delicacy.”

Entertainment–I think half the people come to these festivals to enjoy the free concert that is always held in conjunction with the racing.
Singer and dancers

The stage was set up about 50 meters from the riverbank, and there were a number of singers and dancers who entertained the crowd, when it wasn’t raining. During a couple of different downpours, everything was covered with tarp.

Nai singing

A couple of times during the entertainment, my friend Nai got up on stage and belted out a few popular songs. Normally a fairly shy guy, he lights up when the opportunity to perform in front of a crowd presents itself. He’s fairly well-known locally and performs at weddings, birthdays, anniversary parties and other events. He isn’t paid for volunteering to sing at events like this, but the crowd loves him and they come to the bottom of the stage and hand him several thousands of kips (and cups of beer) while he’s singing.

Nui dancing

Nui, Nai’s sister, on the right, and a few of her friends do a little dancing at our table during one of the performances.

People–here are some shots of kids at the event.
Four young girls

Four young friends enjoy each other’s company. These festivals are very family oriented, and there are lots of kids running around. They’re normally well-behaved and are hardly ever a nuisance, but what I like is that they’re almost always eager to have their pictures taken, though some are shyer than others.

Smiling boy

This youngster sat across from me at our table and he spent a lot of time eating. This is one of the rare occasions he didn’t have his hand at his mouth, chomping on chicken or fruit or crawfish. Very friendly, though, as you can probably tell by his radiant smile.

Shy boy

Not all the kids were interested in having their photo taken. This boy wouldn’t hold still for his picture, but he wasn’t totally against me taking it. He laughed and ran every time he saw me holding up the camera. I finally caught him hiding behind his mother.

Young girl

Not everyone seemed to be all that happy at the festival. I sat near this youngster for about an hour, and I never saw her crack a smile, even though the rest of her family — mom, dad and a brother, it appeared — were laughing and enjoying themselves.

Baby

The youngest members enjoy the festivities, too. Lots of babies here today, who mostly slept throughout the fun.

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