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Swan Boat Races

Thailand photo.

September, 2004

Thailand photo.
1. Swan boats
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Thailand photo.
2. Cooling off
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Thailand photo.
3. Waiting to race
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Thailand photo.
4. A close race
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This was the 17th year of the International Swan Boat Races, held on the Chayo Phraya River in Ayutthaya province. There were 16 teams from countries all over SE asia, Australia and the United States. The competition was combined with the Thai Traditional Longboat Races, with 8 teams from Thailand (see photo #1, at left). We hired a driver to take us from the city of Ayutthaya to the Bang Sai Cultural Center to watch the races.

The swan boats have beautifully carved bow sprits that match the design on one of the Royal Barges we saw at a museum in Bangkok three months ago. They carry a crew of 22 men, most of them seated side-by-side in the narrow, canoe-like hull. The first and last paddlers sit by themselves, as the boat becomes very narrow at the ends. The longboats are similar in design, but much longer. They carry a crew of 55 and have long extended bows, much like the long-tail power boats we see so often in Thailand. In both boat types, the bows are decorated with flowers and bunting. At each stroke of the paddles, you can often see the bows dip from the force applied to the hull. These long, narrow boats are very fast, and rather unstable. It takes a lot of work and great skill to operate them. At the end of each race the crews would ease themselves into the water to cool off (photo #2).

The land in central Thailand is low-lying and flat — perfect for growing rice. It is also perfect for canals. The early kings of Ayutthaya built canals everywhere. The canals criss-crossed the land, providing easy transportation for the people and an ideal habitat for fish, an important source of protein. The canals were also an important defensive measure. Every canal was an obstacle for an invading land army, while the Thai kingdoms used boats to move their army from place to place. Their boats were designed to move soldiers rapidly during emergencies, and a great emphasis was put on speed. From these military beginnings, the races became an important part of the Thai culture. Almost every important town had its boat races; many still do.

In recent years, the swan boat races have become an international affair, attracting competitors from all over asia. The race crews seemed to be everywhere along the river bank (photo #3), waiting for their turn to race or relaxing after their races. The races themselves were quite exciting, with many of the teams extremely closely matched (photo #4). It was often difficult to tell who had won as they crossed the finish line.

Although the races are an important part of Thai culture, they were not well covered in the English-language papers here. We were lucky to learn about them beforehand, and did not know where they were being held until the last minute. We were never able to find out which teams had won. Probably for this reason, we did not see any other foreign tourists there. This was rather disappointing, as the boat races would be a great event for visitors.

 

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Jim and Jamie Richter, http://gotouring.com/razzledazzle/
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Created 9/2004. All text & photos are © 2004 Jim Richter.