. But who cares, it's the Thai New Year! Sabaidee Pii Mai!!
It all started with a water fight in the van. After walking aimlessly around Luang Prabang with an annoyingly boring French doctor who chainsmoked and still finding no accommodation less than $15 a night, I was about to give up hope. Most places didn't even have a room available. Finally we decided to leave ourselves open to being ripped off and asked a tuk tuk driver to take us to a guesthouse that is cheap and guarenteed to have a room available. And that's how I ended up at the Merry Guesthouse number 1, glad to have a place to drop my increasingly heavy pack and enjoy the Lao New Year. As I was walking out the door to go exploring I met a large group of people all headed to the waterfall. They invited me to come with them and remembering how someone once told me that I should never turn down an invitation unless my gut really told me not to, I ditched the French smokestack and climbed into the van. They quickly introduced themselves - Dan and Sarah from England, Sorcha and Cormac from Ireland, Lena from Germany, Johnny from the Netherlands, and Rebecca from South Africa - and handed me a little water pistol. They each were armed to the teeth with the Lao version of supersoakers. As we rolled through the streets of Luang Prabang we shot out the window at pedestrians, bikers, and those already set up with buckets of water along the side of the road
. Shocked faces always turned into a huge 'you got me' smiles. It was great, and I think we all felt a little like badass snipers out of some James Bond movie or something. Pretty soon, though, we left the city behind and with no victims outside the van, we started to target each other. With squeals and laughter the waterfight inside the car lasted a good 15 minutes and soon left us soaked, breathless, and out of 'amo'. By the time we arrived at the waterfall we were all giddy from the ride and ready for anything. The scene there was pretty incredible with mulitple natural pools formed at the bottom of a huge cascade of water, people swinging off a rope or jumping from the rocks into the pools, and about a hundred falang and Lao people watching. We decided to take the path up to the top and see if we could beat the crowds. After a difficult climb, the top wasn't all that great, but we saw some people in a pool a little below us and decided to check it out. Ignoring the 'beware. Do not enter' sign, we climbed over some rocks and there before us was a huge pool of water completely deserted and waiting for us to jump in. As we swam around, freezing but happy to have respite from the heat, we ate the watermelon someone had brought and took pictures. When we wanted a little adrenaline rush we'd float over to the lip of the pool and look down to the pools below, feeling the water straining to push us along with the water pouring over the edge. A great beginning to the madness to come.
The next day, the first official day of the New Year celebrations, I got up early to wander the streets of Luang Prabang and do some errands. Within ten minutes I was soaked to the bone and loving it. Kids and grown ups alike lined the streets with trashcans full of water and little buckets that they would use to throw water on ever walker, biker, or tuk tuk that came along. Everyone was fair game and everyone was participating. After being soaked by a little old lady that giggled as she dumped her bucket over me, a monk passing in a tuk tuk got me with his watergun. Eventually I wandered along the main street of town, which by this time looked more like a river, and found my posse from the day before. They had set up camp with some Lao teens and we just as soaked as I. Finding a safe place for my bag, I found myself a bucket and joined in the biggest waterfight I had ever experienced in my entire life. Everyone seemed to have released their innerchild and the whole city was drunk with the fun. But little did I know that the best was yet to come...
On the second day of celebrations started with a huge, city-long market. Sarah and I, with money burning in our pockets, pushed our way through the crowds, taking in all the beautiful silk scarves, the strange food, the little sparrows, and trinkets for sale.
We relished in the craziness of it all and found some good deals in the process. We met up with Sorcha and Dan at a little cafe for some coffee shakes before heading out to the sand stupa celebration on a little island/sandbar in the middle of the Mekong. The others had decided to go back to the waterfall for the day. We were expecting a quiet little ceremonial thing, but quickly realized that the stupas weren't exactly the main attraction on that little island. I lost the others on the way to the boats that would ferry us across to the island and soon found myself on a street that made yesterday's craziness seem like a quaint tea party. As a lone falang I was an especially tempting target.Within seconds I was soaked to the bone, splashed with flower, and smeared with paint. People were running out in front of motorbikes to stop them while sheets of water were thrown on the poor victims. Lady boys danced seductively to pumping music coming out of one of the guesthouses. Most of hte people I passed held a Beerlao in one hand and a bucket in the other. Not finding the others and not ready to face the paint and flower people again, I got on a little boat to the island. Once there I decided just to take in the scene and wander through the crowds. Amazingly enough, I found the others pretty quickly and we all laughed at this crazy alternate universe around us. There were rockets being fired off, pole climbing contests, dance floors rocking under barely standing tents, and tons of crazy food.
Not brave enough to try the chicken feet, I did sample some buffalo (after all, we are now in the year of the buffalo) which tasted a bit like beef jerky. When I complimented a guy on his hat, he gave it to me, sharing hte the love of the day. Pretty soon the beerlao was flowing and we befriended a Lao family and watched as people began to mudwrestle. We gave our waterguns to the kids and talked through a sort of sign language about our families. This is how I ended up on a dance floor with Big Mama. It was the biggest party in Laos, and we were in the middle of it. But all things must come to an end and once it started to get dark, we decided that it was time to go home. Dripping, covered in flower and paint, and exhaustedly happy we arrived back at the Merry 1. And boy were the others jealous!
My last day in Luang Prabang I spent in a little cafe on the main street, recovering from the day before and waiting for the New Year parade. Our group had permanently broken up, some leaving to go to Vang Vieng and the others sticking close to the guesthouse, so I ws on my own. But of course when travelling one is never really alone, and soon I was sharing my table with two other Americans who had been teaching in Thailand. When the parade finally made it by our table, it was unlike any I had ever seen before. There were girls in full traditional clothes carrying flags, head monks on a float soaked from all the bucket people still throwing water and young monks walking with umbrellas that really didn't do much. The main attraction were the six beauty pagent finalists surrounding the winner that sat atop a gigantic paper mache buffalo. But it was the thousands of people following the official parade that made it exciting. Trucks full of wet teenagers throwing water from the trashcan in the middle while blasting music drove by in a sea of soaked people. In all directions the entire street was filled with bodies moving along with the procession. It was like an interactive parade. There were no policement to hold back the crowds. They were all soaked sitting on their own float farther up in the procession. Everyone was having a great time, and as I sat back and watched the craziness of it all, I just felt lucky. Forget New Years in Times Square, forget the Full Moon Party, forget Ibiza, forget all the other parties in the world, I had just spent three days in the middle of the best one in the entire world. SABAIDEE PII MAI!!!!!!
The unfamiliar Lao pop is blasting, but the rhythmn is the same as anything from back home and I'm dancing hard. I stand almost a head above everyone else in the crowd, my huge banana leaf hat making me even more conspicuous, but I don't care as I jump and sway my hips to the music. My khaki capris are soaked and showing my pink underwear and my new black sleeveless top is not only wet, but covered in the flower being thrown and smeared on me all day. My face is also covered in flower and though I haven't exactly looked in the mirror lately, I think there are smudges of red and black paint on my cheeks and nose. I can feel the sweat dripping from my hair and making little patterns through the grime. The woman in front of me expertly doing the jerk is named Van, but I have mentally renamed her 'Big Mama'. She only comes up to chin but must weigh twice as much as I, half of which I believe must be muscle. She is donned head to toe in different shades of pink and is beginning to sweat as much as I am, but she's the one who kidnapped me to come dancing and I don't see her wanting to stop anytime soon