“Ouwii”, “Ouwii”, “Ouwii”… As early as mid-August – depending on the year – effort sounds familiar to everyone living in Luang Prabang can be heard before one sees the long and slender traditional Lao row boats cut through the Nam Khan River – and sometimes the Mekong – at an impressive speed. This means one thing; Boun Suang Heua is fast approaching…
Boun Suang Heua, also known as the Boat Racing Festival is a traditional festival held annually during the Buddhist Lent. In Luang Prabang, it usually happens between August and September. This year, it was celebrated on September 14th. As one of the most important and popular festivals in Luang Prabang, it attracts visitors from all over the country as well as tourists. A unique and exciting experience, it is a great opportunity to experience Lao culture and traditions.
Boun Hor Khao Pa Dap Din, which is similar to the Day of the Dead, is celebrated between August to September all around Laos. To celebrate their loved ones who passed away, families make offerings at that time. They often offer food, including khao tom (you can find the recipe here). But the highlight of Boun Hor Khao Pa Dap Din in Luang Prabang is Boun Suang Heua, the Boat Racing Festival.
The festival is centered around boat racing, which is a popular sport in Laos. Long, narrow boats, decorated with colorful designs, race down the Nam Khan River. The races are very competitive, and the teams from the different villages train for weeks to months in advance. However, not all villages have boats competing in the race. Sometimes, smaller villages gather together to build a team and compete.
In addition to the boat races, there are also other activities and events associated with the festival, such as food stalls, traditional music and dance performances, and beauty contests.
Held to celebrate the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the rice harvest season, the festival is also a time for people to come together and socialize, and give thanks to the spirits for a good harvest.
Fascinated by this tradition, we wanted to learn more through the experience of one of the teams participating in this year’s race. The Phanluang team graciously agreed to us following them at every step of the way until Boun Suang Heua.
This is how a few weeks ago, our team was introduced to Thepthida Nakhi – their boat named after a Lao princess. Like every year, the boat, tucked safely at the Phanluang temple had been waiting to get some much-deserved TLC. The boats are usually between 27 to 30 meters long and can accommodate teams of 45 to 55 people.
Together – for days on – the Phanluang team repaired the boat, gave it a fresh coat of paint, decorated it with some intricate designs, and reinforced it with some bamboo. Finally ready, Thepthida Nakhi, was blessed at the Phanluang temple during a baci ceremony.
The baci ceremony is a traditional Lao ritual that celebrates important milestones and events in people’s lives. It is an animist tradition that is intended to recall a person’s 32 souls, which can sometimes escape. The ceremony is held during important events such as a birth, a marriage, a loss, or before a journey, to bring good luck. For the Boat Racing Festival specifically, they ask permission from the Naga to participate in the race, they ask for protection from the Naga for the race and of course… to win!
The Naga is a serpent-like creature that is a prominent figure in Lao mythology and folklore. It is believed to live in rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. Nagas are considered to be powerful and sacred creatures. They are believed to control the weather and the fertility of the land. Nagas are also believed to be the guardians of water and the underworld…
After the baci ceremony, the team brings the boat down to the Nam Khan River. It’s now time for practice! Some are a little bit rusty and end up in the water… Nothing some training sessions can’t fix!
The day before Boun Suang Heua, the main street from the Post Office to That Luang is closed to circulation and makes place for Lo Lat, the traditional morning market held every year the day before the festival. This is your chance to see – and taste of course – traditional treats from Luang Prabang which are not readily available otherwise.
On the day of the festival, the festivities start early with almsgiving all around town. Tourists usually gather on the main street around the Vat Sene temple. But if you want a more authentic and local experience, we would recommend you venture on one of the side streets where you will be surrounded by locals.
Shortly after, you can see the different teams converging towards the Nam Khan River, paddle in hand. In Phanluang, the team gathered at the temple for a final blessing with all the usual rituals, before marching towards their boat.
The road along the Nam Khan River is closed to circulation. Vendors are selling food, drinks, and many other trinkets. As the festival usually happens during the rainy season, umbrellas are everywhere. Making it difficult at times to see what’s happening on the water… The earlier you come, the better chance you have to secure a good spot.
Before the race kicks off, you can enjoy a “parade” of the different teams going down the Nam Khan River. Not in Luang Prabang? The race is usually streamed live on Facebook.
Want to join next year?
Here are some tips for attending the boat racing festival in Luang Prabang:
- The festival is held in August or September, so be sure to check online the exact dates in advance.
- The best place to watch the boat races is from the banks of the Nam Khan River. There are also many food stalls and vendors along the riverbank, so you can buy snacks and drinks.
- Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing, as you will be doing a lot of walking.
- Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun.
- It’s still rainy season, so bring a raincoat and/or an umbrella to protect you from the rain.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Be aware of your surroundings and take care of your belongings.
- Be respectful of the Lao culture and traditions.
And the winner this year was… Luang Prabang City Boat! See you next year ?!