Pi Mai Lao

25 Apr

[Excerpt from Vientiane Mai Daily, 21 April 2010]

‘Mixed Report Card from Lao New Year’

Though most people had a wonderful Lao New Year holiday, some incidences of inappropriate behaviour were reported, damaging the Country’s traditional fine image.

Many people used the three day festival for traditional events such as a baci ceremony or visiting temples to bathe Buddha images. This kind of behaviour sets a good image for Lao culture.

But there were still some young people who broke from tradition and celebrated in inappropriate ways. They used hoses and plastic bags containing coloured water to soak road users, despite numerous government warnings to the contrary, and many drank alcohol in excessive quantities.

These issues have been occurring for many years. To resolve the problem, everyone needs to pay more attention to celebrating the new year within the bounds of tradition.

[End article].

On our journey from Hue to Savannakhet, Alex and I adopted two new travel-buddies from Brisvegas – Julia and Caitlan. We four Australians spent the next week or so together in the South of Laos.

When we arrived in Laos its people were partying hard to welcome in the new year. Footprint contained a few words about Bi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) to the effect that festivities involved local people going to wats and wetting statues of Buddha. The Guidebook also suggested these activities were especially spectacular to witness in the historical northern centre of Luang Prabang. But Footprint said nothing about this extended celebration incorporating local people drinking themselves silly and drenching each other with water, which is what we found in the south of Laos.

As we entered the Country from Vietnam we were ignorant as to what Bi Mai Lao involved. We were attacked by multiple gangs of small children with supersoakers when we walked from the Border to the bus station and were very confused as to what was happening. Do people here really dislike Farangs? Or is this some kind of ritual? The kids were cute, and it was bloody hot, so we didn’t really mind walking around wet.

Soon we boarded a songathiew bound for Savannakhet, where we planned to spend the night, and quickly realised that we tourists were not the target of the water attacks (an arrogant assumption?).

We saw that large groups of local people established road blocks at numerous points along the dirt highway to Savannakhet, from where they attacked passing vehicles with water pistols and water bombs. As most vehicles are open – motorbikes or songathiews – this meant a lot of people copping direct hits. As the Vientiane Daily accurately reported, some of these water bombs contained red and blue coloured water (don’t worry Mum, it washed out easily).

We also passed numerous utes that had been converted to mobile water-fight stations. With at least ten people, a huge sound-system and one big barrel of water crammed snuggly into the tray, these cruised around the countryside searching for road blockades and rival ute parties to drench.

It struck me that this was all in good spirit. While the Vientiane Daily portrayed these water fights as dangerous stunts led by insolent youths, we found that everyone – young and old – participated in the action. The two older women who sat opposite me on the trip to Savannakhet attempted to duck from the water attacks and squealed when they got wet, but heartily laughed it off every time. I didn’t see anyone visibly angry or upset about the newer Bi Mai Lao traditions that have a grip on the Country.

We were all buggered when we finally arrived in Savannakhet 15 hours after leaving Hue in Vietnam (the journey should have taken 9 hours, but this is another story). We checked into the first Guesthouse we found and then went hunting for food. Our Guesthouse manager and the few people we passed in the street on our expedition for dinner advised us that the only place to get food in Savannakhet at ten pm was the bus station. We headed there and found big plates of BBQ chicken and sticky rice for $2, and big bottles of beer Laos to wash it down. Then we retired to bed.

At seven am the following morning we returned to the bus station to find a ride to Pakse, the regional transport hub from where we wanted to travel to Tad Lo. We didn’t have to wait long to catch another songathiew to Pakse. It quickly became clear that Bi Mai Lao celebrations were continuing on our second day in the Country. Again our little bus was attacked with water by roadside drenching blockades and mobile party utes.

We were first invited to join in the festivities after arriving in Pakse. The tuk tuk that we chartered from the bus station to the city centre (only a five minute ride) pulled in to a petrol station on route. Here a small party was in full swing. Tipsy Lao people wearing powdered faces and lipstick drawings on their heads and arms, including one man with a dick and balls sketched on his left cheek, ran up to our tuktuk and with glasses of ice which they promptly filled with beer for each one of us to drink. They proceeded to hose us down as the tuktuk drove away and invited us to return. We were assured the party would kick on until late and we were welcome to come back at any time.

After checking in to our hotel, showering and eating lunch, we decided to explore Pakse. We had only strolled 200 metres before we found another street party. We were quickly given glasses of beer and soaked. We bought a few long necks to contribute to the merry-making and proceeded to drink and dance the night away to bad Lao and Thai pop music, and of course attempted to soak every passer-by when the opportunity arose.

One local woman at this party was a high school teacher and could speak some English, and an English woman who participated could speak Lao, so we were able to exchange information about where we were from, how old we were, our marital status, and how many children we all had.

The following morning I was surprised to find that I made it home with my camera, purse, all my money (which dried quickly enough), and had only lost one sock…

A national water fight to mark the start of a new year! What a great idea hey? The Australians discussed why we didn’t mimic the Lao. After all, the first of January tends to be oppressively hot at home, people would love to be soaked to cool down! We concluded that with the drought and all it wouldn’t really be a responsible way to have fun down under and we’d have to continue to be content with the beach.

The next morning we left Pakse for Tad Lo, a village of 500 permanent residents is known for its waterfalls and elephants. When we arrived in town we found that the Bi Mai Lao party were still underway. You’re getting sick of this story now aren’t you. Enough happy new year. Right? Well that’s exactly how we felt; how long can this party possibly last?

A man from Holland (his name has Heins – we called him Beans) who had made Tad Lo his home for a fortnight told us that 4000 people from the surrounding villages and beyond had flooded the city for a big Bi Mai Lao party, which was wrapping up. Other locals backed up the estimated crowd size. The small main street of the village was full of stalls and strewn with rubbish and led to a huge stage and a wall of subwoofers that would not be out of place at the Big Day Out. A walk around the village gave us the impression that the party was one that had gone on too long. People were wasted, with bags under their eyes. But still very willing to throw an arm warmly around your shoulder, crack open a cold Beer Laos, and pour you a glass, and we reciprocated.

The following night, our second in Tad Lo if you a loosing track, the party moved to the Wat. That’s right – the monks threw a party for the people of Tad Lo. We went along for a few hours to check it out – more beer, water, and dancing. A table of young people adopted we four Australians – amongst them were a few transvestites. One of them lent in close to my ear to tell me who in the group were ladies and who were lady boys. I feigned surprise – really!? I wouldn’t have known!

A farmer approached Alex and told him ‘I am a farmer and I am poor’. He then introduced us to his wife and children, who we danced with for a while. We bought him a beer too. Share the love.

I've never been so popular...

We retired from the Wat party early enough, long before midnight, and went to sleep. I couldn’t believe when I woke up at three am needing to go to the loo that the party was still going! The Wat party had become a rave!

In regards to the external WC: some people hate having to make the dunny run in the middle of the night. Granted it’s not something that I would want to become a permanent feature of my life but I actually enjoyed the novelty of it and felt like I was camping. I also liked to spend time with all the animals that live in Tad Lo – dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and huge pigs suckling piglets. Alex and I even saw a dog suckling its puppies and piglets at the same time! Not something you see everyday, at least not in Sydney or Canberra.

And the music didn’t stop at any point that day. As the sun came up the music only got louder and louder. The following night we played cards outside our bungalow and joked that it must be open mike night at the Wat as the quality of singing deteriorated.

The next day, the third day of the Wat rave, was the last. Our guesthouse manager and friend Pap invited us to participate in the end of Bi Mai Lao ceremony. This involved a small parade of people visiting each house and business in the village to collect donations to the Wat, and then delivering the proceeds to the monks. There was a drum, singing and more Beer Lao. It was fun to join in. The little girls all wanted to hold my hand, and the little boys wanted to climb on Alex’s back. Their parents were happy that we wanted to play with their children and introduced themselves to us, pointing out which kids and spouses were theirs.

Finally that night silence fell over the village.

Tad Lo

I almost drowned myself trying to swim under it...

Tad Lo is a beautiful spot. A river runs through the village and a small waterfall, a big waterfall, and a huge waterfall are all in walking distance. All but the later are ideal spots for swimming, fully clothed like the locals. The upstream water is clean and cool enough to be refreshing but not cold. We were warned that at irregular intervals the dam north of Tad Lo dumps a huge volume of water into the river which can make swimming dangerous. If you stay to the little waterfall you should be fine, at least in the dry season.

We took a four hour guided walk to four small villages. It wasn’t possible to do longer treks because the guides were partying, or recovering from partying. Likewise we got to see the elephants Tad Lo known for, but elephant treks were also not running during the celebrations.

We stayed in Mama Pap’s bungalows in Tad Lo. These were simple affairs constructed from bamboo. Each of Pap’s five bungalows cost 20,000 kip a night and sleep two. They have windows, mosquito nets, a light and a fan. The shared toilet was clean but the shower had zero water pressure. But who needs to shower when you can bathe in the river? Pap’s incredible kindness to local kids who she feeds, as well as to travelers was the highlight of this place. She is also a good cook and whips up huge portions of fried rice, noodles, soup, and larb at very low prices.

Alex with Pap outside our bungalow

2 Responses to “Pi Mai Lao”

  1. christine hodgetts April 25, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    where is Brisvegas Kristie?
    from Christine Hodgetts

  2. Mummy April 30, 2010 at 5:49 am #

    Hi Kids,
    Looks like you are having loads of fun. I like the new trim, suntanned versions of Kristie and Alex. All the walking and swimming are doing you good.
    Hopefully, you can dry out for a while.
    Love Mum

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