Pi Mai Lao!
We were always coming to Laos. We missed it last time around and lost count of the times we were asked in backpacker conversations, “Are you going to Laos?” always accompanied with a hand and over the heart and a swoon. What’s more, we consciously decided to come here at the hottest time of the year in order to see Pi Mai, or Lao New Year, whose festivities include the building of sand stupas, parades of monks and beauty queens and a procession where the golden Phra Bang himself, the famous Buddha for which this town is named, gets squired around town on a special fancy carrier. There is a lot of ritual washing at this time of year, a spring cleaning so to speak of houses and temples and Buddhas (including the Phra Bang through a big funnel) and because no one objects to getting wet at the hottest time of the year, the rituals have expanded over the years to include a lot of general water throwing and mayhem.
Luang Prabang is a dream of a town, a peninsula of lovely old Indo-French houses and leafy lanes with a view of the big, muddy Mekong River sliding by. Thanks to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Area, traffic and development is limited. It is not at all a hard place to spend a week by the time you poke your head in a few wats, browse the night market, perhaps stop by a French influenced bakery for the best baguette you’ve had in seven months? Della posted about our book party with Big Brother Mouse, a long planned for highlight of our time here. We also spent an afternoon volunteering at their center, practicing English with students who dropped in which was fascinating and harder than I thought it would be. Della and Vance were asked to define “changeling” and explain the phenomenon of hot springs, while I Miles and I chatted with students about holidays in Laos and America. While I had an easy time explaining Vance’s job in computer programming/management, explaining my old job in my former life at Martha Stewart Living, a magazine that helps you choose the right paint color and make your home beautiful (this to a young guy who had just shown me a photo of his family’s home made of bamboo and wood, thatched with grass?) made me feel very small indeed.
Other highlights included a morning spent at Living Land Farm, where we got a muddy, hands on education about the cultivation of rice from selecting the right seeds, to preparing the paddy with the help of a water buffalo named Suzuki, to harvesting, threshing and polishing the grains. Never will we look at a bag of rice from the supermarket in the same way! We took a boat trip up the Mekong to the Buddha crammed Pak Ou caves, and got up early one morning to hand out rice to the monks who walk in procession down our street every morning clutching bowls to collect their food for the day, some as young as Della (baby monks!) Stationary for more than a week, and eager to finish and jettison our workbooks, we re-started school and of course, spent time in the pool.
Mostly though, we watched the ramping up to New Year’s, the cleaning, the shuttering of stores, the appearance of water guns in the ones that remained open. The little boys on our street were the first to appear out with buckets and basins, eager to squirt passing bicyclists and pedestrians (and us, with cries of “Falang!” (Foreigner!)) Soon enough it became everyone’s business, practiced on an industrial scale- the stationary folks set up hoses, garbage cans and kiddy pools, the roving drove pickup trucks with squads of water flingers in the back, locals and tourists wandered in between with squirt guns of varying sizes. All of it good natured, fun and equal opportunity; everybody soaked, nobody huffed about it. When we decided to take a half day trip to the waterfalls outside of town (pretty but a veritable anthill crawling with holiday makers) we were drenched repeatedly in the back of our open sided truck (with a row of seats down either side.) The best part of that outing was sharing our ride part of the way with a bevy of girls about Della’s age who ducked and squealed at the incoming water and laughed contagiously when it found a target.
Finally after three days of chaos and by the looks of things, a lot of Beerlao (“It has to end after three days- if the people drank anymore they would die!” our waiter said on morning four) things quieted down appreciably. Our guesthouse organized a baci ceremony, where we had strings tied around our wrists for good luck in the New Year, and the next morning we biked through town early to watch the procession where the golden Phra Bang was very carefully brought down from his perch and loaded onto a golden carrier, before being wheeled s-l-o-w-l-y down the street, to be parked under a special pavilion for controlled, sedate watering over the next few days.
Weather wise we were extremely lucky; flying into Luang Prabang we could barely make out the jagged mountains that surround the town through the grey haze of heat and smoke that hovers this time of year, the result of slash and burn agriculture in the hills. With rainy season still more than a month away, we somehow got a few days and nights of showers, which cooled the air and washed the sky back to blue. By the time the heat came back full blast, water was being flung everywhere we went. A more convenient pattern we could not have asked for! After sizzling in Bangkok, we were extremely grateful.
From here, we head to the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury for a few days, and then continue south to Vientiane. More adventures await, Happy (Laotian) New Year all!