The Annual Boat Racing Festival

19th September, Phitsanulok, Thailand

Manda writes:

On the third weekend in September, the residents of Phitsanulok get together for an annual Boat Racing Festival. Ian and I seemed to be in the minority, looking very 'tourist-like' in amongst the hordes (we only spotted two other tourists that day).

The boat race can be watched from the Naresuan Bridge free of charge, but we paid the 20 baht entrance fee to get some riverside seating in front of a long street market. The first market stand caught our eye immediately. A hot and bothered looking lady was stirring a heavy wok full of something. On closer examination, we noticed that she was frying up some bugs. No kidding, her merchandise consisted of grubs, cockroaches and grasshoppers. A few of the locals smirked as they watched Ian and I pull wrenched expressions. This was definitely a 'local' market. The second bug-selling stall even sold another delicacy in the form of fried scorpion, while the third vendor sold all these bugs but with added seasoning. In amongst these dead critters was evidence of spring onion and garlic. Mmm, that's made them more enticing!

Fried cockroach for lunch? No thanks, I already had a plate of giant grasshopper for breakfast.

We found a nice spot on the steps to cheer on the teams. The steps were a bit wet from last night's downpour, so we bought a seat mat (a large sheet of foil paper) from an entrepreneurial lady. We watched the pairs of teams shift their boats down the Nan River at double speed, picking up the already-fast-momentum towards the finishing line. These Thai rowers definitely had their Weetabix this morning and the motorboats alongside them were struggling to keep up. Some boats contained thirty rowers while some of the smaller ones carried only three. All the boats were decorated nicely with ribbons at the front. After all, the day wasn't just about racing boats but also which one was the best decorated and who had the best cheer-leading team.

Longboat racing on Mae Nan (or the Nan River): another two teams get ready to make their way up-river to the starting point.

The cheerleaders danced and sang their support across the river. Some of their dance moves were mildly amusing. But what was even more amusing was the commentator. He sounded very excitable and did that take-one-deep-breath-then-speed-talk thing that commentators do. This one had a Mutley laugh though which made him even more endearing.

A member of a losing team sits bailing out the leaky boat, one cup at a time.

After a couple of hours, we decided to take a walk around the market. What was immediately apparent was how cheap the goods cost compared to Chiang Mai. I bought a leather pouch for my mobile phone, which only cost the equivalent of 60p. At that price, I couldn't be bothered to haggle!

From the market we could clearly see the temple, Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat, and decided to beat a path towards the beautiful structure. It was extremely busy and a constant stream of people could be seen going in and out of the temple. Apparently, this wat collects 12 million baht in donations a year. It is definitely a popular spot for worshipers. This is the first time we have seen a wat so jam-packed in Thailand. The famous Buddha statue (according to guide books, the second most important Buddha statue in Thailand) was shielded under a piece of cloth on this occasion, presumably under renovation.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat.

As we left the temple, a group of school kids gestured with hand signals that they wanted to have their photo taken with Ian. It caused some confusion as we initially thought they wanted us to take a photo for them. The giggling school kids found the idea of a Westerner standing by the temple a novelty. I said to Ian that he should have stretched his palm out jokingly afterwards and asked for five baht, or whatever the going rate is over here to make an appearance in someone's photo! Ian, on the other hand, felt privileged and happy for five minutes thinking that they had confused him with someone like Hugh Grant (well, he's getting the long hair and the wrinkles!).