Thailand hosts a wealth of regional boat festivals through the year, but few produce such memorable moments as this annual spectacle on the Nan River.
September and October — the Thai Buddhist Lent period — is time for the “Long Boat-Racing Festival” in Thailand because these are the months when river tide is at its highest. Organized by those who live in provinces where big rivers pass such as Phitsanulok and Phichit (Nan River) and Ang-thong, Ayutthaya, and Pathumthani provinces (Chao Phraya River), the longboat races have become much-awaited annual events, not only because of the fun and excitement they promise but also because the revenue derived from spectators who flock to the provinces for the sport spectacle.
One of the many Thai traditions that have survived from the Ayutthaya era (about 600 years ago), the boat races started as a means to prepare and boost the morale of the kingdom’s soldiers, as way to develop further their courage and strength by rowing — as every Thai man were considered vital to the country’s defense at that stage of history time when aggressive neighbors could start a war anytime. Boats used during the festival are carefully chosen – made from auspicious trees that reflect that beliefs of a particular area – and rowed by best trained and most fit of rowing-crews.
But the fun competitive element of the activity was not lost on the Thais and soon, it became a major sport activity, which it has remained till today. Thus, long boat racing festivals are now part of the annual events calendar of many Thai provinces, although many consider those in Phichit and Phitsanulok, usually held in September, to be the most interesting.
But in October, another interesting longboat race happens in the province of Nan – the so-called Lanna Boat Races, derived from the traditional name of the region, after the kingdom of Lanna that encompass most of the northern provinces before they became part of Siam (and now Thailand).
What makes the Lanna Boat races in Nan most interesting is the way locals regard the boats and the races. Nan temples are famous for their artistic treasures (as all Thai temples are) but they differ in another respect: their compounds contain long, simple shelters where massive dragon boats, often made from a single trunk of wood between 20m and 30m in length, depending how many paddlers they are built to hold, are housed.
Painted in bright colors and with fierce naga heads adorning the prow, these boats are brought out just once a year for the town’s most important sporting and social event — the Lanna Boat Races.
As said earlier, the races take place during “Ok Phansa” (the end of Buddhist Lent) and for a few days Nan shakes off its somnolent character to become a pulsing center of wild excitement. Competitors and visitors pour into town and line the riverbanks to watch a traditional pageant on the water before the races begin.
Once they start, teams of 50 or more paddlers — dressed in electric-colored vests –churn up the river with their paddles in an attempt to reach the finish line first, while groups of cheerleaders in identical dress dance and cheer them on from the riverbank.
The race lasts for two days, with wildly decorated, long, low-slung crafts zipping down the Nan River, and thousands of people going wild with the excitement inherent in the competition.
Thailand hosts a wealth of regional festivals throughout the year, but few produce such memorable moments as this annual spectacle on the Nan River.