The Bintan Island Dragon Boat Race
There’s something about a good race that still gets the blood pumping after all these years. I remember watching Oxford and Cambridge go at it for the first time back in 1973 (a younger man, back then!). I remember yelling at the TV as Sebastian Coe crossed the finish line. I was lucky enough to see Mo Farah win his second gold last year, though from quite far back in the stadium. I love the rush of physicality and competition.
Having taken in everything from Caribbean Yacht Regattas to the Malaysian Grand Prix in my years travelling, I can safely say that the Bintan Dragon Boat Festival is still a wholly unique experience, and one that anyone who enjoys their sport should take part in.
In terms of heritage, no race (that I’m aware of) can match it. Having been part of Chinese tradition for more than 2500 years, the Dragon boat race is held each year on the fifth day of the fifth month. On my first time at the festival, I talked with a local about what made the date special: I was told that it was the day on which a legendary poet had drowned himself, and the boats racing across the water represented those that raced to save him from the waves.
To be honest, I’d initially dismissed the story as folklore, but a little research once I arrived back home revealed that the poet was a genuine historical figure named Qu Yuan, and that he really had committed ritual suicide in protest against the corruption of the era by walking into the Miluo River. The tradition of casting zongzhi (a small package of rice bound in reed leaves) into the water during the festival stemmed from the same event. After the poet had died, those who had boated to his rescue threw rice into the water as both a peace offering and in order to distract nearby fish so that his body would remain intact. The tradition has continued ever since.
Bintan Island in general
Bintan Island is found in the Riau archipelago of Indonesia, and is part of the Riau Islands province. The majority of tourists tend stay in one of the many villas in Bintan, as despite only being 900 square kilometres wide the island provides a multitude of accommodation. The secluded beaches of many resorts on the east of the island are around 28 miles from the capital city of Tanjung Pinang, where the race itself takes place.
The dragon boats themselves are extraordinary: they really do look like they’ve been plucked straight out of history, with the decorative Chinese dragon heads almost luminous in greens and golds and easily visible from the banks where the locals gather to watch the race. (It is possible to hire your own boat so that you can watch the action from right up-close, if you want to). The fact the boats look so genuine is no accident, but in-keeping with the apparent regulations which state that all vessels used must be constructed entirely in the traditional way. I counted teams of twelve rowers (or paddlers, as they’re referred to in the rules).
Over the three days that we attended the event, we were able to take in the intriguing opening celebration, which is based around various ritual preparations including the wonderful lion dance performances, as well as the multiple firecrackers that are set off.
Before the races can actually take place, the locals pay their respects to the deities, making offerings such as peaches and bean paste pastries, as well as the aforementioned Zonghi. A local spirit medium and spiritual sedan are then invited to a floating shrine, which is set not far away from the arch where the races begin.
Though the races themselves aren’t too long (the distance is approximately 600m in the Tanjung Pinang event), there is plenty to be entertained by. The native drummers pound out a traditional rowing rhythm, and there’s a genuine sense of occasion when the first racers set off for the finish line. And boy do they set off. Unlike the rhythmic smoothness of traditional rowing, the teams power their paddles into the water in an almost brutal motion. I felt sore just watching it, so I’ve got no idea how their shoulders felt by the end of the three minutes or so they were racing!
If you’re feeling brave and fit (I wasn’t feeling either!) then you’re actually welcome to participate in the various races should you wish to form part of a team. As well as those that chose to get involved in the swimming on the final day, there were no end of locals using the water as a local diving spot – something keenly encouraged, if you feel like having a go.
If you’re in the Indonesia, and have a day or two to spare, I would heartily recommend you take the time to visit Bintan Island, and check out a dragon boat race. I’ve been back once already, and I’m aiming to get in at least another trip before retirement!