carrying the ceremonial boat

The Roy Lua – Floating Boat Ceremony

August 14, 2018
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As I’m walking closer to the place where the Roy Lua Ceremony happens, I can hear the music louder and louder. I start imagining what atmosphere is like. My mind is not wrong.  Small food stands with some local food, children toys and alcohol scatter around a small concrete football field with a dance floor dominating the area. I take a look around and find a place where a skillful craftsman builds the ceremonial boat.

urak lawoi building ceremonial boat

I come closer to do some test shots to see how they react. After a few shots, they still concentrate on their vessel, which is fantastic. As I move back, I bump into an Urak Lawoi person, and just my luck, it’s Mr Chang. I did not see him for a long time; his face is prominent with eye bags. As he looks at me, I notice that he recognizes me, but he is not sure where from. I explain that he helped me photograph Urak Lawoi trap diving and he remembered. I check with him, and I am more than welcome to shoot the whole process of the ceremony.

urak lawoid building ceremonial boat

Urak Lawoi History

Before explaining The Roy Lua (floating boat ceremony) maybe we should take a glimpse at the Urak Lawoi background. Urak Lawoi in Malay refers to ‘people of the sea’, which they indeed are. They are fishermen who used to live semi-nomadic life around Adang archipelago spending most of their time in boats during the dry season.
urak lawoi kids
Their origins are disputed, and there are two stories about how they ended up on Koh Lanta. For me, the spiritual version is the favorite.

While they were fishing, they were surprised by a big storm, and they followed fish Kraben Kra-O (Kraben = fish and Kra-O = the personal name of the fish) which could talk to them. As they followed the fish, a white bird Bolong Puté landed on top of the mast of the boat, and at that moment the storm became silent as they realized they were sailing between two cliffs of Old Lanta town where they settled.

Malay tried to turn them forcefully into Muslims after Malays conquered Langkawi. They refused and escaped by sea to Koh Lanta.

carrying the ceremonial boat

Others claim that they originate from Langkawi in Malaysia. Malay tried to turn them forcefully into Muslims after Malays conquered Langkawi. They refused and escaped by sea to Koh Lanta.

Nonetheless, their origins remain a mystery, but the legends and the stories we read might give us a glimpse of where they originate from.

urak lawoi lady placing flowers on the boat

Building A Boat For Loy Rua Ceremony

Fast forward today, to Koh Lipe, they are building a boat for Roy Lua festival, which is a ceremony held two times a year at the beginning of the season in October and the end in April, both of them on the full Moon. The festival lasts for three days, and it is used to chase away the misfortune. The first day, they party until the second day when fishermen go to the island of Rawi to search for a “lucky wood” to build a boat. After they bring back the wood, they create small and long sticks that they use through the whole process of making a craft. They carefully take the sticks, cut them and nail them to their spot on the boat. Hands, big and solid from all the work they have done during fisherman’s life, but skillful enough to hold small nails which they carefully use to arrange more details on the boat. Sometimes new faces appear and give their contribution to building a craft.

urak lawoi singing

I walk around the festival feeling the atmosphere while, around me, kids are throwing firecrackers and playing around. There is everybody from kids not older than a year, to old people who can barely walk, but apparently, this is a thing not to miss. There are not many foreigners which gives a better feeling about the place. There are few people on the stage starting to dance but, as I’ve heard, it’s going to be a crazy party tonight.

urak lawoi ceremonial boat

The party is warming up, the boat construction finishes, and people gather around it as builders pick it up and move it to the beach to decorate it. Women carefully place the flowers on the boat, people around take photos, and loud music gets replaced by people singing local songs and playing drums. People come to the vessel to leave some money, a bit of their hair or nails as a symbolic way of taking away their misfortunes on the boat which will get released onto the open sea.

urak lawoi lighting the candle on the boat

I planned to go to bed early so I could wake up for the boat release. I knew I was lying to myself; I went to bed at 4AM, slept for two hours and went straight to the party. To my surprise, the party was still going strong, and people were slowly gathering at the ceremonial boat, and traditional dance around it took place while fishermen played drums and sang.

I planned to go to bed early so I could wake up for the boat release. I knew I was lying to myself; I went to bed at 4AM

Slipping The Boat Into The Sea

At the first break of light, they lift a ritual craft and carry it on another real longtail boat to be carried out to the sea. I was almost waist deep in the water photographing, not even realizing it. I check with Mr. Chang if I can join them and with his cracked voice, from no sleeping three days, he says I can. The rest of the people stayed and looked at the boat, as it carries their misfortunes away.

carrying the ceremonial boat

Beautiful morning colors paint the sky, and those colors reflect all around us. Everything has a bit of purple in it, water, island, sand, trees and the boat which is being navigated between the corals and not sleeping for almost three days doesn’t help fishermen to go through it smoothly. We clear the corals and go for the open sea. The mood is going up between the crew, the waves are not that big, and there is not much to worry until they reach the destination.

releasing the boat

After 15 minutes we stop at what seems to be an excellent place to let the ceremonial boat a float. They look like a perfect team; two guys jump into the water waiting for the ceremonial boat handed to them while others lift it and gently pass the front of the ceremonial boat to the guys in the water. A few more Urak Lawoi words are exchanged between them back and forth, and the craft is in the water. They push it further away, and that is it. As I am taking my last photos of the boat, Mr. Chang tells me I can make a few more, and we can not look back to the craft anymore as it will mean bad luck. I put my camera in the lap, and we turn back not to see the boat ever again. If the craft came back to Koh Lipe that would mean bad luck for the island.

loy rua boat release

On our way back I sit at the front of the boat, and the other guys are behind me. I didn’t want to be that guy who looked back, so I had my eyes fixed to the island. To be honest, that was hard since the fishermen behind are throwing firecrackers in the boat, celebrating successful Loy Rua festival.
boat release
When we reached the shore, rice was thrown at the fishermen as they made prayers. At this moment you reflect on your own life a bit. When I was young I watched all these documentaries about all these indigenous people, about the distant lands, different cultures and after a different set of circumstances, I’m the guy behind the camera experiencing it all first hand. As I came back to reality I could see some fishermen already falling asleep I just went to Mr. Chang to thank him for the opportunity before he heads over to dreamland.

celebrating after boat release

The next day, when I came back, four crosses were placed where the boat used to be, to ward off the evil spirits. People are dancing in circles around the crosses, and the final party is on the way. Is there anything special about the last party? Not really. It is just a party; it is the final night, and all of the ceremonies are finished, and everybody can relax now. I heard that years behind they would keep on partying up to seven days, sometimes people would get married just after the Roy Lua festival thus meaning party continues. Seven days of partying? Not bad for some fishermen on the island, huh?

urak lawoi party

Traditional Culture At Risk

The Roy Lua ceremony is just another beautiful ceremony like many others, happening in small indigenous communities like this one at the island of Koh Lipe. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. In the past few decades, currents have changed. The development of tourism, commercial fishing, modernization and urban development have led their traditional culture to be significantly at risk. It is not only the Urak Lawoid culture, but the change is also happening all around the world to indigenous people and their cultures. Let’s preserve them.

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