Canoe Racing on the Nam Tha River – Laos, Asia

At 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, I ran headlong into Lao time. Until then everything had gone like clockwork: no missed flights, no lost luggage, no forgotten reservations – everything smooth as silk. Planes, trains and automobiles – all on schedule.

The long-tail boat that carried me across the Mekong that morning passed through an unseen barrier that rendered clocks and schedules irrelevant. After procuring my visa along with the requisite twenty stamps in my passport (visa officer’s name, visa date stamp, passport officer’s name, passport stamp, expiry date, color of shirt tourist is wearing, name of office dog, etc.), I wandered up the street to a non-descript travel office.

In the ten-by-ten cement cube was a desk, a few plastic chairs, idyllic Mekong sunset posters on the wall, and an officious looking guy smoking a cigarette while jabbering on the telephone. I handed him the slip of paper that indicated I had paid for a bus ticket in Chiang Khong, Thailand, earlier that morning. He nodded at me, waived at a chair and continued jabbering. When he got off the phone, I queried him “Bus to Luang Namtha?”, to which he replied, “Yes, I get tuk-tuk, you wait”, and then disappeared.

Fifteen minutes later, he returned with a tuk-tuk. By now it was 9:15; I was told the bus would leave between 9:00 and 9:30. I hadn’t even gotten to the bus station yet, which was five kilometers outside of town. The tuk-tuk would take fifteen minutes to get there. Upon arrival at the bus station, the tuk-tuk driver was surprised to find that the bus that was supposed to leave by 9:30 actually had departed, but he shrugged his shoulders and pointed to another mini-van and took off.

I went over to the van and asked the driver when he would leave; he shrugged and said (in the only English he knew), “When full, go". Realize that I am using the word “asked” quite liberally here – pantomiming looking at a watch, waiving my arms, etc. The English phrase, “When do you leave for Luang Namtha” got me nowhere. So I sat down and waited. Other travelers and locals dribbled in by ones and twos; we eventually left at around 11:00 a.m. Welcome to Laos.

As it turned out, the van ride was not too painful. The once long and dusty road had been paved, and the trip only took four hours, which must have been why the guest house owner in Chiang Khong, Thailand, had encouraged me to take the bus rather than follow my original plan of a two-day boat trip up the Nam Tha River.

I arrived at the Boat Landing guest house on the Nam Tha River near Luang Namtha at around 4:00 p.m. After a shower I was enjoying a beer in the open restaurant next to the river when I noticed that a crowd was forming on the riverbank just upstream. Soon I heard a whistle blowing. A long canoe appeared around a bend in the river with a coxswain blowing the whistle and thirty or so paddlers furiously stroking. Up river from the restaurant the coxswain stopped, and the paddlers relaxed while the rudder man and coxswain turned the boat around. I asked Thone the receptionist, what was going on, and he said that the townspeople were practicing for the big boat races on October 27th. The occasion for the races was the end of Buddhist Lent – I am not sure what “Buddhist Lent” actually means, but the fact that it was ending was a big deal. Soon there were several teams of both men and women practicing. I decided to walk up the river and get a closer look.

The boats had angled sides and a flat bottom, were about seventy feet long, three feet wide (in the middle), and could hold up to forty paddlers, a coxswain and a rudder man. The teams would paddle slowly upstream around the bend, and then turn around and paddle downstream in time with the whistle tweets, which would gradually become faster and faster until the finish line was crossed. I counted the strokes as a couple of boats passed and came up with a rate of about 100 strokes per minute for the faster boats.

After watching for a bit, I decided that I wanted to give it a try. When the next boat came up to the beach, I pantomimed that I wanted to get in. The coxswain smiled and nodded for me to take the place of the first person in the boat, who grinned as he handed me his paddle. I looked around at the paddler behind me; he made motions indicating that I should hook my feet under the seat in front of me. As we pushed off from the beach, the coxswain blew one long tweet to signal the start of paddling; we all dug in and headed up river, stroking to the rhythmic tweets of the whistle.

While stroking I looked up and the coxswain gave me a thumbs up, so I figured I must have been doing something right. After about two minutes, the tweets stopped. We all relaxed while the boat turned with the current. So much for the warm up. Now it was time for the real work to begin.

When the boat was facing downstream, the coxswain raised his hands, and with a blast of his whistle, lowered them and the boat lurched forward as thirty paddles dug in. At first the whistle tweets were not too fast, about one per second. I was able to keep up. Then the pace increased, with the tweets coming faster and faster as we flew down the river. It was all I could do to keep up, with my head down and body struggling to keep up with the pace.

I was amazed at how fast we were moving. In only a few minutes, I began to tire. I could not keep up with the stroke rate, and I was almost thrown out of the boat by the surging strokes from the other paddlers. I managed to re-synchronize my strokes for the last few seconds, and finally the coxswain signaled halt with one long tweet. I gasped for breath, turned around to look at the other paddlers smiling and laughing as I breathed hard. I figured I had acquitted myself well for a 43-year-old farang, but I suspected that an invitation to join the team would not be forthcoming.

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