Dragon (Swan) Boat Races – Bang Sai, Ayutthaya

Written by SIAMPEDIA on December 5th, 2009

© Frank P. Schneidewind


The famous Dragon Boat paddlers are serious athletes in Southeastasia. This discipline requires countless hours of hard training by the paddlers, expert shipbuilders and carpenters and a lot of honor is at stake, as every country in Southeastasia wants to win the tournaments for their respective nations. Navy Cadets of the Royal Thai Navy are pictured here, they qualified in national tournaments throughout the country for a spot in the famous international competitions, such as this one. Dragon Boat Races are very Popular in Hong Kong and Malaysia, their history is supposedly 6.000 years old and is based on ancient Chinese naval warfare tactics.

Thailand as the host was allowed two entries, all other nations (2009 = 15) came with their qualified teams. The venue is held once yearly at at the Bang Sai Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Centre in Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Province on the Chaopaya River. Several other Dragon Boat  style races dot the country, this event has nationwide TV coverage and six figure prizes! A heap of cash money is being shelled out to the winning teams, the event is scheduled for two days, the winning team takes 300.000 Baht home. Here, 15 teams did compete with 22 paddlers each, making this called a Swan Boat Race. No admission is being charges and subsidized prices for beer and free show entertainment does draw crowds! For show purposes they have a couple of so called Long Boats with up to 100 paddlers each.

That is little, if compared to the big races in Hong Kong, Malaysia or elsewhere. The sport is governed by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), the worldwide body for the dragon boat sport. Thailand’s flagship event was created as a Swan Boat Race, so the TAT can govern it all itself, I presume. TAT created this event in the years following 1986, the first international team showed up 10 years ago.

But let’s focus on the event itself, the boats are made from teakwood and other tropical hardwoods, the paddles or oars are pretty simple and not curved. Prayer before start is an obligation to Thais, flowers, flags and ribbons decorate the vessel. Paddlers sit in pairs, each one operating to one side, very small room is given.

The race itself takes place on the mighty river, where this section of it is dedicated for the paddlers. You need a good zoom lens on your cam and a tripod to shoot the race-action well.

Thai TV has such equipment, they cover this event yearly on Channel 11, an army owned broadcasting unit. Visitors aren’t  too many, they are scattered on the spacious grounds.

VIP’s are catered for in a special lounge on a balcony, overseeing the activities on the water. Politicians, eager for their pictures in the media will hand over the prizes later. Some military brass and police bosses appear occasionally.


As the sun sets, youngsters surface out of nowhere and confiscate the racing pier for their watergames full of fun. The vessels can be viewed and inspected close-up now. In the backdrop you can spot the empty rice barges, whose big steel hulls protect the venue from other commercial ships on the river.

The stern of each “Swan” boat has a carving, resembling a dragon much more than a swan, but if TAT tells me, this is a swan – I have no reason to doubt that! The colorful boat decorations can be seen up close here.


The paddles can be seen in detail here, the blades were dipped in blue paint and displayed a spay painted “Thailand” script each.


The Thai teams usually are booked for all big prizes, as real athletic Dragon Boat competition from Malaysia or China obviously is not a part of this. They have a beer happy gang from Freemantle in Australia instead and even other international competitors (Taiwan, Philippines, USA etc.) without a real chance for the dough.


The “international competitors” seemed more to come here for the fun only,.America’s oldest  and active participant was a septogenerian Greatgranddad, still rowing strong:

Sexy dancers perform meanwhile on a stage in the lawn of the grounds, the huge grounds appear empty, because nobody seems to be interested in this type of entertainment, a few dozen sit scattered on the lawn and relax. I feel sorry for the girls as the do a nice performance, but their trademark smiles fade quick, when they exit the stage. 3 or 4 photographers take notice of them, everyone seems to hang out for the so called superstars and the winners announcement and stage presentation.

The “super stars” are usually some soap opera or karaoke folks, which have a local significance maybe – but their stage shows seemed rather boring to me, I liked the sexy dancers during the phases “in between” much better!


Dance groups also included some historically dressed girls, photo opportunities by the score here!

Brassiers must have had their origin in ancient Thailand, although todays models seem to be more comfortable and not exactly made to be worn over shirts or garments.

The sponsors, as in many TAT activities, were providers of alcoholic beverages, such as beer. The super rich providers of alcoholic beverages aren’t allowed to funnel their budgets into the media anymore (according to Thai law), so they allocate budgets to the TAT now to sponsor all kinds of events and online contests, such as the ill-gotten UTE joke, with their rule bending and faking in so called public votes.

Beer is being sold here well below store prices, which draws a certain crowd of people. Families can have water in bottles, a sodapop or Coca-Cola is not available.


Flowers for all athletes and free coconut with their delicious juice, mountains of them were served.

Another rather senior paddler from overseas enjoyed the music and dances at this farewell show.

The Team from Freemantle came with their own Crocodile Dundee

The grounds at Bang Sai are well prepared for any type of venue, their park and signs light up after dark.

With hundreds of paddlers attending the farewell dinner on the lawn later, there is finally a crowd for the performers on stage. Every team is being called up stage to receive their farewell gift, a nice photo of their team to decorate the walls of their boat house meeting rooms. Dances are common and commenced into the wee hours.

Another TAT inspired event to showcase the superiority of Thai athletes in a nice packaging, but too transparent to have any impact. Artificial tie-ins to historical boat sports are fed to the media, some even believe this and broadcast it uncritically. It is however a fun filled event for the teams, doesn’t draw any crowds worth speaking of, but provides a nicely choreographed show, a lot of sexy dancers and sweaty paddlers plus a well prepared venue for many. Be one of the few and get your impressions yourself, it’s worth the short drive to Bang Sai. As long as TAT doesn’t rip the foreigners off with dual pricing here, I am happy to promote this scenario as a great photo opportunity for tourists, happening to be in Thailand during shows like this.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. sklep says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!