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Paddling in Phitsanulok

I (George Bowman) being of sound mind and body do hereby nominate Dragon Boat racing to be an Olympic sport. Thailand will probably win.

But first, let’s back paddle just for a minute.This style of racing has been popular for centuries in this part of Southeast Asia but has never made it to the world stage. Most of the competitions follow the guidelines of the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) that has been established in 89 countries or territories. Presently, the International Olympic Committee is considering the IDBF application to participate in the Olympic games. They need to hurry up.

To help convince this committee let’s go watch a boat race. Yesterday, I attended the annual Dragon Boat race in the town of Phitsanulok. This is the largest city near my place in north central Thailand. Normally, I try to avoid going into town but for this fast paced paddling, I always make an exception.

Nan River

The Nan River originates in the mountains of northern Thailand and slowly winds itself through the province. It is a perfect setting for Dragon Boat racing and various teams will race 500 meters to the finish line in long, narrow boats traditionally built out of Teak. Paddling is not for the weak.

Dragon Boat & Crew

People often ask me what is the Thai culture like. And the truth is that even though I have lived here for a little over two decades, I have no idea. But these boat races help provide some insight. The start of any social event in Thailand is always the same. Noisy,chaotic and no one seems to be in charge. The Dragon Boat race was a good example.

Boats were being taken in and out of the water, while the paddlers were lounging on the river banks. Various vendors were selling their wares and spectators were hiding from the Sun. It does takes some time but once the Thais get organized, hang on to your hat. The action is about to begin.


I have witnessed this style of disorganization over and over again. It might be in the rice fields or building a house.But what is truly amazing is that each and every time when it matters, the Thais will work in harmony and get stuff done in a hurry. Like boat racing.

The blue team won!

The crowd is going nuts, the announcer is screaming and the Sun is bearing down. A guy stands in the back of each boat yelling out commands in order to synchronize the paddlers. One can feel the intensity.


Some teams have been practicing for months while others are still fixing leaks on the boats the day of the race. The paddlers are just regular Thai men. Some work in factories, others own a business or farm. One of the toughest teams was the Thai military. I could have water-skied behind their speed boat.

Thai Army team

Even though the boat race only takes a few minutes, it is exhausting for the paddlers. And it is also pretty tiring for the photographer.

As a young boy in America, I can remember watching synchronized swimming during the Olympic Games and wasn’t particularly impressed. If the World can have contests where people swim upside down, then surely Dragon Boat athletes should be able to get their paddles wet during the Olympics…

Exhausted but Victorious

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