It’s impossible not to feel an adrenaline rush watching a dragon boat race. There’s something about the sight of lean, sun-kissed men and women rowing gracefully in unison that fascinates and exhilarates the keen observer. As you shade your eyes from the glare of the sun, your beating heart tries to catch up with the hollow, steady rhythm of the drums signaling the paddlers to row faster and faster.
Tourists flying to the Philippine island of Boracay usually go to experience its fabled white sands, clear aquamarine waters, romantic sunsets, and the lively night life – at relatively cheaper costs. For water sports enthusiasts, the annual Dragon Boat Festival is another reason why the tropical paradise is one of the most exciting tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Boracay Island Paddlers Association, in collaboration with the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation, introduced the festival in 2007 and held every year since then, during the peak of summer.
The highlight of the festival are the dragon boat race competitions participated in by several dragon boat teams. Visitors are given the opportunity to witness the athletic prowess of local and international paddling teams up close with postcard-worthy sceneries as the perfect backdrop. On its sixth year in 2012, (timely enough, also the Year of the Water Dragon in the Chinese lunar calendar), 26 teams from Australia, Canada/Holland, Hong Kong, Singapore, USA, China, and the Philippines took part in the International Dragon Boat Festival.
Enter the Dragon Boat
Dragon boating is a relatively new sport in the Philippines, introduced in Boracay, Aklan, only in 2001. Having descended from ancestors who traversed rivers for transportation and trade, Filipinos showed such impressive aptitude for the sport: the national Dragon Boat Team is a consistent winner in the most prestigious Southeast Asian and international dragon boating championships.
Of course, you do not need to be a sports enthusiast to be able to appreciate the event. You can’t help but be drawn right in amidst the bustle of activity surrounding the festival. The average guest is treated to a cacophony of sights and sounds from the opening parade to the dragon boat races to the after-party by the beach. There are plenty of activities to be enjoyed including watching fire dancers, sharing a drink with newfound friends, beach games, and dancing until the sun comes out. Also, you will never find the hospitality of the natives wanting.
Dragon Boat Festivals in Asia
Chinese people in many parts of Asia including Singapore, Malaysia, Riau Islands, and Greater China celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival at around the same time every year. Marked on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, it is also referred to as the “double fifth”. These countries also hold dragon boat races but their festivals include aspects of religious and cultural observances.
The Philippines, colonized by Spain for three centuries, is a predominantly Catholic nation in a continent most noted for Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Loosely considered as the odd one out among its neighbors, it is no surprise that while Dragon Boat festivals are being held by its Asian neighbors, especially China, since ancient times, it is only very recently that the country started the tradition – and on a slightly different context. The Dragon Boat Festival in Boracay is more as a fun family event promoting athletic competition than a cultural event.
As you watch the slender boats with their fierce dragon heads glide swiftly through the sparkling waters, you can’t help but imagine ancient warriors rowing to battle. You allow yourself a moment to drink in this vibrant, dramatic spectacle before you remind yourself that this isn’t war; but rather a celebration of skill, strength, and camaraderie between people from different races and walks of life. As you fly back home, it just might be that you can still hear the faint, steady rhythm of the beating drums from a distance.