Luang Prabang, 12 - 17 April 09
12.04.2009 - 17.04.2009 32 °C
From the boat in Nong Khiaw, the mass of bodies madly scramble their way to the local bus heading for Luang Prabang. Fortunately we make it aboard, unfortunately we miss out on a seat and have to make do sitting next to the driver, on top of the engine with no leg room. Already cramped and in agony... and then the locals pile on and our sardine can is fit to burst. Let the fun begin... 4hrs later we, with our crew, are negotiating a realistic price into town via tuktuk. True to the tradition of the Laos New Year Water Festival "Bun Pi Mai", we are saturated by young and old throwing buckets of water at us. Being April, the hottest month in Laos, we welcome the drenchings (despite our driver repetitively slowing down to ensure our demise - maybe we bargained too hard?). Finding a cheap and livable room at new years for a group is turning into a fruitless mission. Until we are saved by a guesthouse that is putting up tents to take overflow wherever tents will fit on their property (including inside the kitchen and lounge). We're sold. Slight miscommunication lands us in someone else's tents to start with so we dump our packs and head out to explore (and cop a few more soakings).
The food stalls here are amazing - whole fish kebabs, vegetarian buffet for about 80 cents NZ (as much as you can stack on your plate), whole stalls dedicated to BBQ'd meat, and a random assortment of local delicacies. Washed down with a delish fresh fruit shake or Beer Lao.
Tonight the girls run rampant around the fun fair with the intention of watching the Miss Lao competition - yet at US$100 for a table, we'd rather watch from outside the fence (as do most people). Only a few people actually pay to enter and the views aren't any better. We are slowly acclimatising to Laos time, yet after 1.5hrs, many drinks and snacks later, the show still hasn't kicked off so we wander on. Nevermind, we'll see Miss Lao at the parade! Back home tents have popped up like mushrooms, and after a night out at the local garden bar Guido ends up claiming one tent, Alana another... eventually we'll get it right!
The town centre is based around picturesque palace grounds with an exquisite wat (temple), and from the neighbouring mountain top more temples reside with great views over Luang Prabang.
Colonial villa's and traditional lao abodes make for a pleasant walk to the peninsula where the Mekong meets with the Nam Khon river. But (ashamedly) what excites us most are the baguette stalls - large fresh baguettes chocca with chicken/mayo/salad or Lao style with mystery meat/pork shavings/salad/mystery fillings. The best we've found in SEA!! And given valuable advice from a cheap-ass friend - they advertise the baguettes at the tourist price but accept half that. Another 80 cents well spent! Topped off with a coconut milk and mango shake and we're set until the vege buffets are back in operation. And don't even get me started on our discovery of the "oreo shake" and then the "oreo coffee shake"... heavenly!
The night market is the best we've seen in SEA - the main street closes to traffic every night, the stalls appear as if from nowhere and unlike the chaos we're now accustomed to - this is surprisingly serene. The Lao people really are a relaxed race and their calmness resonates with us. Stunning handicrafts - so hard to resist but some Khao kam (a local red sweet wine made from black sticky rice) wouldn't hurt the back!
Back at tent-town we regroup with our border crossing buddies and head to the gorgeous outdoor garden resto - which is very upmarket yet to our delight sells the cheapest large Beer Lao in town, and being a mere 50m from our tents, is very conveniently located. All bars close by midnight so we migrate to a friends riverside abode and drink beer Lao on the balcony, overlooking the river.
The water festival lasts around one week while the whole country celebrates the Lao New Year. On the first day the old spirit departs so people give their homes a thorough cleaning. The second day sees a parade down the main road between Wat's, and the third day is a rest day so people wash their Buddha images at the local Wat. The new spirit arrives on the sixth day, with various other activities in between.
The first day of the New Year sees us swallowed up by the New Years market that consumes the main road. People walk in the appropriate direction of the car lanes and carry banners to celebrate the new year. Stalls line the street to sell food, drink, birds, water-pistols and anything else one may require. Happy vibes, organised chaos. The only downer was seeing all the young kids shooting pellets from toy guns - especially when you get pinged on the forehead by one! Most of the children have these which is rather distressing, considering the turbulent history of the country at least.
Come noon the market clears out and super soakers consume the streets to soak all. We run the gauntlet down to the river, getting drenched from buckets, water pistols, hoses, even ute's that patrol the streets with teens on the back to pour water on those below. This is a serious water fight that you can't beat, so you have to join! People come from all over the country in their hordes, matching shirts, endless supplies of water, and endless energy. Teens dance on the ute's to "Akon" and other bad mainstream western music. This is a water fight of epic proportions!
We take a boat over the river to the "beach party". Piled in like sardines, we're lucky not to collide with other reckless boats hooning back and forth to shuttle for the party (unfortunately the same can't be said for all the boats). Alana falls out of the boat at the other side but chooses to embrace it - after all, this party is essentially a knee deep mud pit with more water, flour, and paint to add to the carnage. Flour bombs! Alana unsuccessfully takes on a 5yr old for practice - but he has friends! Local music pumps and beer Lao is on sale at every stall. Interestingly this seems to be a real local affair and it's mostly the locals getting their groove on at the dance floor (aka mud pit). Alana gets acquainted with some friendly locals when they start pouring beer down her throat and skewered meat in her mouth - who needs conversation! G and A happily join this crew for drinking games and more spoon-feeding - these people sure know how to party! We go nuts on the dance floor to Lao music - and are thoroughly amused by their dancing which is essentially a bum dance to bump other people aside for more space. Once back ashore we stumble up to a vege buffet but our munchies are uncontrollable and we think we must've overstayed our welcome here - will have to try a new stall tomorrow...
The second day of the New year and the water-fights are still in full swing - all day. High anticipation for the grand parade and when the parade pours through, they get poured on by trigger happy water pistol wielding spectators. Music, marching, martial arts, monks and gorgeous costumes galore. Not even the monks are spared from the water blasting. The newly crowned Miss Lao arrives on a float, astride a pig - for some reason we'd expected it to be a real pig but it was still entertaining. On our way to meet friends at the garden bar we pass a bunch of uniformed cops drinking beer Lao - it seems everyone is in the festive spirit!
The third day of the New year and after a 2am bed time the 5am alarm is not appreciated! Yet we drag ourselves down to the palace grounds to observe the alms giving to the monks. Well presented women (mostly) kneel down on mats with their offerings on display. Live percussion serenades the monks from the palace and they do the rounds, their urns getting filled up with sticky rice and assorted sweet treats, with the occasional kip note thrown in for good measure. Street urchins race for the overflow and their baskets get topped up also. An interesting blend of give and take, a distribution of wealth so it seems. And unsurprisingly, once the sun comes up, the waterfights continue. Such endurance!