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Dragon Boat Festival & Race in Malaysia

Updated on September 27, 2017
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Born and raised in Malaysia, Mazlan is proud of his Malaysian and Asian heritage and likes to share its mysteries, culture & current issues.

Dragon Boat Festival in Penang, Malaysia
Dragon Boat Festival in Penang, Malaysia | Source

Duanwu Festival

Duanwu or Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese ritual with over 2000 years of history, began as an event to ward off evil spirits and diseases, which were then very rampant during the summer.

This is one version of the many stories on the origins of Dragon Boat Festival. Another version is associated with the patriotic poet Qu Yuan.

Zongzi, Xionghuang Wine, and Dragon Boat Race

When Qu Yuan drowned himself in the river, the villagers used zongzi to distract the fish from eating his body. Zongzi, a traditional Chinese food made of glutinous rice stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves is hence, associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. Eating zongzi is, therefore, part of the rituals of this festival.

Drinking xionghuang wine or realgar wine, a Chinese alcoholic drink made with realgar, is another activity associated with this festival. This is believed to turn away evil spirits.

However, the main activity and highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival is the dragon boat race itself.

In this race, competing teams will paddle their boats forward to the beat of thumping drums, to the finishing line. This race originated from the action taken by the villagers who beat their drums to scare away the fish and paddled their boat frantically looking for Qu Yuan's body. Why is it in the shape of a dragon?

In another version of the origin of Dragon Boat Festival is the worship of dragon, the god in charge of water. Therefore, during Duanwu Festival, people will entertain the dragon god by racing in a wooden boat with colorful dragon head and tail, and offers zongzi, in exchange for a good weather and agricultural produce.

This vibrant and rich ritual of dragon boat race and eating zongzi has continued to be in practice for centuries until today.

Zongzi, made of glutinous rice stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves, eaten during Dragon Boat Festival period
Zongzi, made of glutinous rice stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves, eaten during Dragon Boat Festival period | Source

Dragon Boat: Paddle or Row?

In Dragon Boat Race, participants will face forward in the boat and will use a paddle and not an oar. Hence, they paddle. Rowers, on the other hand, face backward and use an oar.

Dragon Boat Race in Other Parts of the World

Dragon boat race is now a major sporting event not only in China and Hong Kong but also in Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Its popularity has spread to other parts of the world. You can now find the event in the USA, England, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, Philippines, Russia, and Turkey.

It is now one of the fastest growing water-based activity. The annual dragon boat races held in these countries have attracted lots of international competitors vying for the prized trophies.

Dragon boat race in Penang
Dragon boat race in Penang

Dragon Boat Festival in June and July

Dragon Boat Festival is usually held in the month of June and July. In some countries, it may even be held in August and October. However, in China, it is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which is June.

In China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, this festival period is a public holiday, but unfortunately, it is not the case in other parts of the world!

Dragon Boat Festival in Malaysia

In Malaysia, Dragon Boat Festival and the Dragon Boat Race used to be organized and participated by the Chinese communities. Now, it not only attracts other ethnic groups in Malaysia, but also international participants.

This festival is also an annual event and is held in the state of Penang, Putrajaya, Malacca, and Sabah.

All dragon boat races that are organized in Malaysia will comply with the 'International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) Competition' regulations and the IDBF Rules of Racing.

Dragon Boat Race Categories

For the Malaysian Dragon Boat Races, the smallest dragon boat is for 12 crews and the longest, for 22 crews inclusive of paddlers, one steerer and one drummer.

Standard categories are for the under-23, the over- 40, and teams comprising of all-men, all-women and a mixed men and women.

There is also the special category for the cancer/breast cancer survivor team for the races in Putrajaya and Sabah.

The shortest distance is the 200 meter sprint. Then, there are the standard 500 meter and 800 meter distance.

Poster for the Penang International Boat Race 2014
Poster for the Penang International Boat Race 2014 | Source

Dragon Boat Race in Penang

The Malaysian dragon boat race was first introduced and held in Penang. It was participated mainly by the locals and teams from the government department. It was then held at the waterfront along Gurney Drive.

It was held at the waterfront along Gurney Drive.

Then in 1979, it started to invite teams from outside Malaysia and had since attracted rowers from more than 60 countries.

With over 30 years of experience in organizing this event, the International Dragon Boat Race is now a major water sport in Penang. The race covers a distance of 200 meters and 500 meters straight course only.

It is a two-day event held in June. The venue has now moved from Gurney Drive waterfront to the picturesque and beautiful Teluk Bahang Dam.

The event starts at 9:00 am and ends at 5:00 pm but do come early to get a spot with a good viewing vista.

If you have a binocular, bring it along. The actual event may be far from where you are seated. For the camera, do not forget the telephoto and zoom lenses to snap photos of the dragon's head, the adrenaline-charged paddlers and the scenic beauty of the venue.

Also, check the weather forecast for the day. It can be unpredictable so bring along a good sunshade and umbrella, to be doubly sure.

Do not worry about food as you can buy various choices of food from the food stalls at the event venue, and Penang is Malaysia's gastronomic paradise!

Location for the Dragon Boat Races in Malaysia

Teluk Bahang Dam, Penang:
Telok Bahang Dam, Tanjong Bungah, Penang, Malaysia

get directions

Putrajaya Lake, PutraJaya:
Putrajaya, Federal Territory of Putrajaya, Malaysia

get directions

Likas Bay, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah:
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

get directions

Malacca, Malaysia

get directions

Putrajaya Water Sport Complex, venue for the Malaysia International Dragon Boat Race in Putrajaya
Putrajaya Water Sport Complex, venue for the Malaysia International Dragon Boat Race in Putrajaya | Source

Malaysia International Dragon Boat Race in Putrajaya and Malacca

The official Malaysia International Dragon Boat Festival organized by Malaysia Dragon Boat Association, is a Twin City Race held in Putrajaya and Malacca. This event attracted lots of entries and had exceeded 2,000 participants from over 25 countries each year.

Putrajaya, Malaysia's new administrative city is about 30 minutes from Kuala Lumpur city center and if you arrive from the International airport, it is about 20 minutes away.

Malacca is further south, about one hour drive from Putrajaya.

The event will include not only the local and international participant but also teams from the breast-cancer survivor.

The race in Putrajaya also includes the special category for Malaysia Inter-Corporate, Malaysia Inter-Government, Malaysia Inter-Uniformed Organizations, and Malaysia Beginners Race.

At Putrajaya, the venue is at Putrajaya's Water Sports Complex in Precinct 5.

The dragon boat race in Malacca is part of the itinerary in the month-long Melaka International River Festival and is held at Melaka River.

Due to the nature of the venue, the race is a short sprint of 500m in Putrajaya and 250m in Malacca.

Activities for Kids

If you bring your kids to the race, they can do other activities for a fee such as a pony ride or jump around in the inflatable bouncy castle.

Then there are the food stall tents selling fast food, Malaysian foods, junk foods and kiosk that give away free coffee, if you are early and lucky enough.

The Malaysia International Dragon Boat Race will include the Breast Cancer Survivor Teams
The Malaysia International Dragon Boat Race will include the Breast Cancer Survivor Teams | Source

Sabah Dragon Boat Race

The annual International Sabah Dragon Boat Race is jointly organized by Sabah Tourism Board, Sabah Chinese Culture Association, and Sri Pelancongan Sabah.

It is held at Likas Bay, about four miles to the north of downtown Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah.

Sabah Chinese Cultural Association initially organized the race. But in 1996, Sabah Tourism Board and other travel agencies became their organizing partners.

As with the other boat races held in Penang and Putrajaya, Sabah Dragon Boat Race also attracts international participants. The event, however, is a much scaled down version of the race in Penang and Putrajaya.

But it covers the 200-meter and 800-meter race distance, unlike in Penang and Putrajaya that had 500-meter as the longest race distance.

The smallest boat is for a 12-crew team, the longest boat is for a 20-crew team. The Penang and Putrajaya events had races for a 22-crew team.

It is one of the major sporting events in the state, after the Mt Kinabalu International Climbathon Adventure Series and Sabah Adventure Challenge.

Sabah Dragon Boat Race at Likas Bay
Sabah Dragon Boat Race at Likas Bay | Source

Visit One of These Dragon Boat Races in Malaysia

If you happen to be in Malaysia around this period, make a point to see at least one of these International Dragon Boat Races. There is no entrance fee; all you need to do is to travel to these venues. My recommendation is to either go for the Penang or Putrajaya race. You can skip Malacca, which is part of the Putrajaya twin race, if you are short for time.

See you there!

Penang Dragon Boat Race 2012

© 2014 Mazlan


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    • greatstuff profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi livetech. That sounds like fun. You should join the other dragon boat races as well. I believe there's one in the UK at Bewl Water sometimes in the early part of September. Check it out.

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience.

    • livetech profile image

      Paul Levy 

      4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Awesome hub! I took part in the dragon boat race earlier this year in China - in a city called Hangzhou. I was in a team with other foreigners, working together to get our boat to finish first! We ended up in third place and celebrated by capsizing the dragon boat!

    • greatstuff profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      @Eiddwen, thanks for the kind words. Have a great weekend.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      A brilliant hub and thanks for sharing. Now looking forward to so many more by you.


    • greatstuff profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      @ kidscrafts, do you know that the largest dragon boat race outside Asia is held in Vancouver, Canada? Probably due to the large Chinese population there. It started way back in the late '80s. The breast cancer survivor teams are very active in this race and participated in most of the dragon boat races around the world. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    • kidscrafts profile image


      6 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      We have a lake (a small one) in Ottawa where people practice that kind of race :-) I find that fascinating!

      I think that there is a team of women who are breast cancer survivor who participate to that!

      Thank you for sharing that special festival in Malaysia!

    • greatstuff profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      @teaches12345, the TV sports channels are the best place to watch all the sporting activities around the globe and I am glad you saw Dragon Boat Races on TV. I watched the video on training for dragon boat race and boy, it looks tough! Thanks for the visit and your comment. It's so good to see you again.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I have watched these type of races on TV and know it takes great strength and training to paddle these boats. I found your post educational.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      6 years ago

      Very exciting; great images! Nice work on this hub. I didn't know much about boat racing but this looks like such a fun and exciting event.


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