Boat races are common all throughout Buddhist Lent, a full three-month period generally running from late August to the end of October. The exact dates vary each year, but most races are held on the weekend, start around noon, and end by sunset.

About mid-way through Buddhist Lent, the first major boat racing festival is held in Luang Prabang. Many others will be held later on along the Mekong River and other waterways. Then, the final race is in Vientiane. The first and last races are by far the largest and most important.

The Boat Racing Festival is also a time of other, accompanying festivities. There are bamboo rockets shot off to announce the beginning of a race, local markets that spring up and thrive, and other entertainment that goes on.

Since it is the rainy season, the waters are high and good for boating, the farmers are not overburdened with work, and tourist season is at a low point. This set of circumstances, and the fact that people have been waiting all year for this, creates a lot of excitement about the boat racing events.

In the scope of this article, we will learn about the Laos traditional boat racing festival and the festive atmosphere in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

Laos boat racing festival: a slice of tradition

Traditionally, after the rice planting season (toward the end of rainy season) villages on the riverbanks prepare themselves for the boat racing festival that they look forward to in and around their communities.

Dragon boats (long boats built specifically for racing purposes) are taken down from their houses onto the rivers. Teams of rowers start practicing weeks or months before the boat racing season arrives.

In the countryside where Lao tradition still runs deep, every household in the host village prepares special food and drinks. One type of food that almost every household prepares for their guests are noodles (Khao Poon in Lao). As guests arrive at their houses they are offered some noodles and something to drink. This tradition has been carried on for generations and it’s also practiced in boun pavet, and boun bang fai (rocket festival). It is still seen in city of Vientiane, but it is not as common and normally only happens among close families and friends.

Apart from providing food and drinks, the host village also needs to build temporary shelters for the invited guests and the rowing crews, to stay the night before the racing day. These shelters are as simple as bamboo huts or tents. Each family in the village contributes basic stuff like mattresses, pillows and blankets.

Generally all the rowing crews are provided with food, drinks and places to stay free of charge. This is the responsibility of every household in the host village as they are happy and excited to take part in the festival.

At the temple, the night, or sometimes two nights, before the race, an open-air bar and dance floor are set up temporarily. All kinds of liquor (beer Lao, Lao Lao, or whisky) is sold and a live band play. Teenagers, men, and women from the host village and from villages nearby, as well as the crews enjoy themselves drinking and dancing into the night.

In the morning, the races start around 8 or 9am. Usually two boats race down the river for each heat. There are normally six to 10 boats participating in each festival and sometimes more if there isn’t another boat race festival taking place on that same day in nearby areas.
There are prizes for winners, though they are not much, because the heart of the races is not the prize but the fun everyone has.

The races finish in the late afternoon, but that isn’t the end of the festival. Regardless of the result of the races, the celebration carries on until late or until everyone is either drunk or exhausted. Well… this is a big event for locals and is only celebrated once a year, so they all want to make the most of it after working hard on their farms.

Usually after the traditional boat racing festival (village level), there is a huge boat racing festival that everyone is looking forward to. This is known to most locals as Vientiane boat racing festival. Many villages around Vientiane with racing boat entry the race at this festival.

Luang Prabang boat racing festival

In Luang Prabang, the boat racing festival is held on Khao Padapdin, the Day of the Commemoration of the Dead (in August), that is the exact half-time of the Buddhist lent and finish the last day of the Buddhist lent. They are the 2 more important of the year.

The other races take place in many villages, in the Mekong River or one of its tributary.

The last race traditionally takes place at Ban Xieng Ngeun, about thirty kilometers from Luang Prabang, on the road to Vientiane. In the morning, homemade rockets made from bamboo are launched for the better and the worst.

These two races (the first and last) are the largest in the region and provide an opportunity for a large market involving all kinds of domestic and import. The other, more "local" are among a dozen and are held every 4 or 5 days.

The boats of fifty athletes compete on a few hundred meters and the sweltering heat, a victory involving one of the villages of Luang Prabang, the cries of encouragement to many who meet these opportunities. We are indeed in "low tourist season", and during this second part of the rainy season, agricultural tasks are not heavy, people have more time than usual.

The races generally begin around mid-day, and finish before the sunset.

Aside from the boat races, the main attraction is a massive fair where many people gather to shop for bargains at stalls along one kilometer of Sisavangvong Road for the Boun Haw Khao Padapdin festival.

After the boat races end in the evening there will be various entertainment activities including traditional dancing and singing, with student performances among the main highlights.

Various live bands will also be on hand to entertain the crowd and make sure the evening is enjoyed by all.

Where

That said, you can watch Luang Prabang boat racing festival, the 2 most important ones, at 2 places. The first one close on Nam Khan River closed to town on the day of Boun Khao Padapdin. And the second one at Ban Xieng Nguen, 30km from Luang Prabang, on the last day of the Buddhist lent. Check the map below for your reference.

When

The race in Luang Prabang town is usually held at mid-way between Boun Khao Phansa & Boun Awk Phansa (around late August or early September). The last one at Ban Xiengnguen is held at the end of the Buddhist lent.

Here are the exact dates until 2024.

Year Luang Prabang Town Ban Xiengnguen
2022 26 August 10 October
2023 16 August 8 October
2024 02 September 27 October
2025 06 September 07 October
2026 26 August 05 October

 

Vientiane boat racing festival

That said, the biggest and the most significant boat racing festival in Laos is held at the end of Buddhist lent (Awk Phansa) in Vientiane, on the Mekong River. This is known as Vientiane Boat Racing Festival and it is more or less a national festival.

The Vientiane Boat Racing Festival is held every year, starting from the 15th day in the 11th month in lunar calendar.

The actual race is held on the 16th day, with heats starting early in the morning. Over 20 dragon boats and rower/paddler teams line up for the race on the Mekong River. The entrants come from all around Laos to compete in this significant festival.

There are usually three categories of boats: sport for men; traditional for men; and traditional for women. Teams of rowers are usually sponsored either by big name companies, such as Beer Lao, and telecom companies or by ministries or organizations in Vientiane.

Fa Ngum road, the road along the Mekong Riverbank, and other streets leading to the river are lined with stalls days before the actual festival starts. These sell all kind of clothes, food (especially grilled chicken and sticky rice cooked in bamboo pipes), fruits, and drinks. There are also sideshows, such as pop-the-balloons, where small prizes can be won all over the place.

On the race day, the town comes alive with noise and festivity as the teams make their way to the river either by truck or walking, banging drums and singing. The streets to and along the Mekong Riverbank are very crowded as thousands of spectators cram along to cheer their teams.

Lovers of this sport (yes, boat racing is a sport) make sure they get the best spot on the riverbank. When the boats are racing down the river, you will hear people cheering, yelling, and banging drums along the river.

It is fun to observe and even more fun if you dare getting on the boat and be part of the rowing team. Find below to see how to join a team.

Usually the races start with the women’s teams, followed by the men’s teams. The final round happens in the afternoon and sometimes it carries on until late in the afternoon. The winner in each category receives prize money and a trophy. After the races finish, the prizes are presented to the winners by high ranking officials.

The races and the prize presentation are broadcasted live on the Lao national TV channel.

Where

The boat racing festival in Vientiane is usually held on Mekong River, close to city center. Check the map below for your reference.

When

At the end of the Buddhist lent, detail below:

Year Day Date
2022 Monday 8-10 October
2023 Monday 7-9 October
2024 Monday 26-28 October
2025 Wednesday 6-8 October
2026 Tuesday 4-6 October

How to join a team?

Usually it is quite hard to find out how to go about doing something in Laos unless you know some key people as events are often not advertised.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) assembles a team to take part in the race every year. This is an open mixed-gender team and many locals and expats working/living in Vientiane join in the fun even if they do not work for the MRC. There is a small fee to join though (I mean small) and that covers the cost of a T-shirt and a cap as well as food and drinks on the race day.

If you are interested contact: +856 021 263 263, email: [email protected]. You might need to do a bit of explaining of what you want as the person at the other end of the line might not know about it (staff movement rate is quite high), so ask for someone on the Staff Association and eventually you’ll be directed to the right person.

It is easier if you know someone who works at MRC. Ask them to introduce you to the organizer. Either way you have to act early, at least one or two months before the festival, as it is important to join in the practice sessions.

There is also a women’s international team, which rows with the women from one of the local villages. Details about how to join this team are normally posted in local shops or sometimes in the events section of the local paper, the Vientiane Times. This team welcomes any women, experienced or not and provides a good way for people to join in at a local level as you will be included in village activities as well sometimes such as traditional boat racing festival at village level.

Laos boat racing festival photos

Boun Awk Phansa

Though the Boat Racing Festival draws the eyes and the crowds, celebrations for Boun Awk Phansa, the last day of the Buddhist lent are not forgotten. In the morning, donation and offerings are made at temples around the country. In the evening, candlelight processions are held around the temples while hundreds of colorful floats decorated with flowers, incense and candles are set adrift down the river of Lao.

This colorful ritual has been carried on by Lao people for thousands of years to pay respect to the Buddha and to thank the mother of the river for providing the water that supports life. The floats also let the bad luck of the last year drift away, enabling the good luck to flow in.

Here is the dedicated article about Boun Awk Phansa

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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