Waterfights and Hilltribes

Trip Start Nov 14, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, April 16, 2007

Luang Prabang is completely different to the other towns in Laos. The French have left a distinctive impression on the architecture and this combined with several beautiful Buddhist Wats has meant the heart of the city has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main area has a great choice of places to eat and the night market is excellent. It is hard to go shopping though because we can never buy anything on sale apart from a t-shirt as our backpacks are jam packed already.
The prices of the rooms were a bit over our budget but this was because it was the Laos new year. It lasts about four days and the whole town comes out to celebrate. On the first day of the celebrations we hired some bicycles and had a mooch around town. We found a little waterfall and by the time we reached it we were soaked right through. To celebrate the new year they have a four day water fight. Kids with Super-soakers, women with pans and blokes with hose-pipes lurk behind parked cars and in doorways waiting for anyone to come their way. Farangs (foreigners) being the number one target. Before the main two days of the festival we decided to go on a trek out into the countryside where we would stay with a Khmu Hill-tribe for one night. Amy had lost her trainers so our guide took us to a market where the only footwear available were some very funny looking green canvas boots. They turned out to be an excellent  purchase as she was the only one who found it not nearly impossible to deal with the slippery, muddy hills we trudged across. There was just the three of us and a cockney woman called Jo who lived in Bangkok. She was good fun and just as ill equipped for trekking as we were. The scenery was nice but marred by the slash and burn techniques the farmers chose to do, leaving whole hillsides scorched of any greenery. Not the most environmentally friendly method of agriculture but once our guide, Yin explained the huge financial pressures resulting from little subsidy from the government and the illegalisation of opium production (a source of income to the hill-tribes for centuries) it gave us a better understanding why the more economically viable technique has prevailed. The government are going to ban it in 2010, something of huge concern to the people of the countryside.
The village we stopped at consisted of 72 families. Yin could speak the language and he told us of their traditions, social problems and attitudes towards tourism. It was a real experience and after a couple of glasses of home-made whiskey Amy would have a 'moment'. These moments are what all travelers get when you stop to think about your surroundings and realise how amazing this backpacking lark is. It was nice to see Amy go into one lol. It was strange in the village at night . There was a little area for the four of us and Yin to drink and sleep. We felt like goldfish as many of the villagers stopped to have a look at us. The electric went off at 10:00pm but not before what seemed like the whole village crowding into the chief's house to watch a couple of hours of Thai TV. The next day we kayaked back to town which was great fun however Amy and I seem to be useless at it. Any rock we hit and any shallow we got stuck in it. When we returned to the city the whole place was one big water-fight.
We bumped into Steve and Christine (the Ozzy couple from Halong Bay) who had armed themselves with a water pistol each and we had a few drinks with them and Jo. We also met up with Finnish Jo again. The day after we decided to get equipped and spent a good half hour checking out a variety of water pistols. After finding the right weapon to suit our needs we joined the celebrations. It was extremely good fun. I got revenge on Tuk Tuk men and other westerners seeking revenge on all the kids who had been soaking them in the preceding few days. The party moved down to the banks of the Mekong River where there was music, dancing, Beer Laos and mud fights. Truly a special day. We bumped into several people we had met elsewhere, a young Canadian form Malaysia, Tim who we met on a bus in Vietnam, Mushroom Expert Mike and two young Canadian girls from Vang Vieng, English Hugh from Cambodia, and Bicycle mad Maurice, Amy's lecherous American friend.
We left for Chaing Mai, Northern Thailand  after the festival, which meant a 12 hour slow boat, one night stop over, another 12 hour slow boat, one night at the border and an eight hour bus ride to Chaing Mai. We completed this unforgettable journey with Steve and Christine which was great but the rigid wooden seats on the boat were really not very good.
The Laotian people blew us away. Friendly, happy, smiley people. Good humoured in a pleasing, surprisingly sarcastic way. A few times I would ask a waitress if I cold get Fried rice to which she would reply "No!" then walk away in  hysterics. Despite it being the most bombed country in the world (by the Yanks in the 70s) and officially being a communist country, you would never be able to guess what the people have endured in the recent past. There was no sense of ill feeling towards westerners/tourists and so far the people here top our list.
After India I just thought how lucky we were to come form England or Europe etc. We are in many ways but in some ways we are not. We are free, rich, educated and looked after by the state(?) and all that but in some ways we are worse off.  Everyone in Asia smiles, they seem happy, life is more simple and easier in some respects. The new year celebrations in the streets of Luang Prabang was very special. The main thing that stood out for me was the groups of young adults and teenagers all dancing, throwing water and flour at each other and laughing together. I think how this could not happen in England. There is a water fight being organised in Durham through Facebook but will probably only have the people there up for a laugh. Imagine if the whole of Durham were there. Surly a few fights would occur? Community spirit that our parents often get nostalgic over, whether true or not has vanished. Not in Asia. Charvas, cynical young students, quick witted pub dwellers and other pessimistic sorts in the UK often hinder this sort of thing from happening. Not always though! But for an example - the Miners Gala should be a a day of celebrations about our County's heritage and the people of Durham having fun and partying together. Instead of it being one of Durham Police's busiest nights. Anyway just a thought and if I am not at the next Miners Gala bash a few Bear Parkers and Brandoners for me.
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