Foreigners float their boat in Laos festival

BAN SAIFONG NEUA, Laos (Reuters Life!) - It’s the end of the Buddhist lent on Friday and for the village of Ban Saifong Neua, like the rest of Laos, that means prayers, blessings -- and dragon boat racing.

Men and women’s teams compete in the races, but what sets Ban Saifong Neua apart is that it is the only village that fields a team of expatriate women.

Every year, this sleepy village on the Mekong river 18 km (11 miles) from the capital, Vientiane, is transformed into a carnival that draws crowds of locals and foreigners for the Bun Seuang Neua, or boat racing festival.

The event marks the end of Lent, normally at the end of October or early November, and is one of the biggest festivals of the year in the landlocked southeast Asian nation.

The long, narrow boats race for only one day but anticipation builds for several weeks ahead of the event and the festive atmosphere lingers afterwards.

The 45-member Lao and International Women’s Boat Racing Team has been rowing for 12 years. Twice a week, from August until the festival, the “falang” -- foreigners -- turn up in their sports tops, water bottles and sun block for a grueling three-hour training session with the local women.

Mala Wongkhamjan, who has been rowing for 13 years, is one of the few villagers who remembers how the team came about. She said a foreign woman came around to ask villages around Vientiane to set up a team made up of local and foreigners. Ban Saifong Neua was the only one to agree.

“It’s more fun with more countries around and you learn from each other,” Mala said.

Most Lao women are regulars in the annual festival while the expatriates change every few years, but to make it fair for everyone, only those who have trained for eight sessions can participate in the race.

“It’s a fun, festive atmosphere and it’s really great to see everyone coming together. The villagers really made us feel part of the local community,” said Louise Scott, a team coordinator.

Kelley Gary has been with the team for four years and acts as a translator for the coach, who is the village primary school principal. The team helps raise money for development projects in the village through sponsorships and donations.

“Last year, the week after the race, we held a party in Vientiane and the whole village came squashed into four pick-up trucks,” she said with a chuckle.

Before hitting the water, they take part at prayers at the local temple.

After placing their offerings and being blessed by the monks, a village elder faces the team and says: “This year, you’ll win the race.” Everyone laughs, momentarily forgetting that they have been saddled with a boat older and slower than most of those that will be plying the Mekong on Saturday.