Longboat races—I’d never heard of them, but I was definitely curious!
It was only 9 a.m. on the Saturday of the Phimai Festival, a raucous celebration of a small town, but the sun was already excruciatingly hot. Donning wide-brimmed hats and noses covered in sunscreen, the Tan Your Mind team squeezed across a bridge spanning the Chakkarat River, which I’d later learn was widened more than 200 years ago specifically to accommodate these longboat races.
The bridge was packed with spectators, cars and scooters making it hard for us to weave in and out, winding our way down to a covered area on the shore. People sat on rows of chairs, fanning themselves to keep cool while dressed in suits and spectacular celebration regalia. Music blasted on the loudspeaker, while exquisitely dressed Thai dancers performed on the waterfront wearing gold and purple outfits. Trophies, flowers and colourful decorations were placed everywhere the eye could see. A man—I assumed he was the master of ceremonies—started to speak, telling the crowd that the trophies were gifts from the King of Thailand! The MC then thanked the sponsors of the race and began introducing each team.
Lining both sides of the river were sponsors (mostly local beer companies), supporters, cheerleaders and vendors selling everything from food and booze to souvenirs and bottles of water. The Phimai Festival takes place annually after the harvest season to give thanks and to celebrate the bountiful crops. This year, however, it was an extra-special celebration, because it was the last day for a number of young Thai men before they become monks. It was the last day for them to indulge in things like meat and beer, as the next morning they would be inaugurated into their new way of life.
There were 20 beautifully decorated boats, each carrying a team from a different temple in Thailand. On the bows of these long, narrow, man-powered vessels were a bright, floral arrangement resembling Hawaiian leis gently placed over each boat. Every team had a different colour of uniform—some bright green, others florescent pink or deep purple. Everyone matched, and so did their rowing pattern—immaculately and in true unison, these longboat rowers, holding up to 30 people, skimmed effortlessly through the 600-metre course.
Three to four boats raced at a time as the announcer encouraged them excitedly over the loudspeaker. The crowd cheered wildly as they cheered on their home team and the competitors rowed to victory.
Longboat racing is taken very seriously in Thailand, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also fun. During the race, we came upon a group of ladies dancing and cheering, all wearing T-shirts that supported their longboat team. These ladies were cheering for the boat named “Porn Boon Lue”—I have no idea what that translates to, but it’s a very fun name for a boat.
Porn Boon Lue’s cheerleading squad of middle-aged mothers invited us to leave our backpacks with “Grandma” and join them in celebration. We laughed and danced together and, although we weren’t able to understand each other through language, we communicated with hugs, smiles and gestures. One even offered me a swig of rum from her flask; however, in the heat of the day, I politely declined. There was a lot more festival to take in, as the longboat races had just begun and the parade was next on our agenda.
Porn Boon Lue took second place in its category and, before we left, we were lucky enough to take a seat inside. Jess and I removed our shoes and carefully climbed into the skinny banana boat, being cautious not to tip it over. We thanked the team and congratulated the ladies as they screamed and clapped in excitement. Now I know what Longboats are and what the races feel like. They remind me of my favourite sports back in Canada, complete with food, booze and strangers that quickly become friends.