Back in November 2014, Swarana and I threw a little leaving-drinks shindig in the Earl Haig in Crouch End. One of our friends, a well-travelled English fella called Martin, sat me down and said, “Mate, promise me one thing, make sure you’re in Chiang Mai on 14th April – it’s New Year there and this bloke I met in Thailand told me it’s mental.”
I asked what happens. “I don’t actually know because I couldn’t make it. But that’s it, see? That’s why you have to make it! Make sure you get Swarana there for the 14th.”
Alas, as our route organically meandered out on the road, it grew increasingly clear we wouldn’t be in Thailand mid-April. I was gutted – until we discovered that Luang Prabang shares the same New Year with Thailand, though with the name Pii Mai, rather than the Thai Songkran. Indeed, they both enjoy the same tradition – an almighty, three-day, no-soaks-barred water fight.
We’d be in Laos in April… We could be in Luang Prabang for New Year… Soon we were talking to Lao people who said the water-fight tradition actually originated in Laos, and Thailand had shamelessly copied it (although I expect Thais may say the opposite). This could be a winner!
Our first taste of the mayhem came on our bus from Vang Vieng, as we head north over the mountains. Our seven-hour journey had us bashing shoulders with each twist in the snaking road, as glorious views of the Lao countryside whipped by.
As we passed through small villages and towns, our bus became a target for children starting the festivities early. Several times the windows shuddered with hose after bucket of water showering us from the roadside.
Luang Prabang was quieter, but the New Year celebration wasn’t due to start until the following day, so we went to check in to our hotel, which overlooked the Nam Khan river – at that time a brown, sorry-looking affair, clearly suffering from acute dehydration in these dry summer months.
Calm before the storm
We spent that first night blissfully at ease, having a nice dinner on the main drag before taking a look round the night market on Sisavangvong Road. It must be a mile long: two separate lanes flanked by red tents slightly too low for your average westerner, sheltering clothing and trinkets for tourists.
The next morning was bonkers. We left the hotel, with as little to carry as possible and our wallets in plastic bags, and were almost immediately soaked by kids with super-soakers, women with hoses and men throwing buckets of water over everyone who came within three metres of their water barrel.
The idea is to wash away your neighbour’s sins for the new year; but by the relentless nature of what we saw, these people must live sordid, filthy lives, because there’s more forceful wash-downs than your average morning at Shawshank.
We needed to arm ourselves – I didn’t want to walk around like I wasn’t taking part, like a spoil-sport westerner – so we ducked into the first shop we could find and bought two water pistols. Mine was a standard pump-action squirter, Swarana’s was more like a Walther PPK – sophisticated but ultimately unintimidating.
The street was abuzz – water was flowing through the air like a broken Bellagio fountain; kids ran past your shins, squirting your shirt till it clung to your skin; and teenagers leapt from pickup trucks, their hands dipped in dyes – green, mauve or maroon – wiping the paint on passers-by’s faces and necks (I’m not sure where this fits in to “cleansing the soul”.)
But every act of deluge or dye decoration was done with a smile as wide as the Mekong. It was wonderful.
There’s also a huge amount of boozing going on. Beerlao is everywhere, whether it’s in the hands of a westerner with one thumb over the bottle top to keep out the spraying tap water, or being poured into super-soakers by naughty local kids. But no one’s drunk or aggressive, by any means.
To augment the occasion, we bumped into Veronique, the Canadian we’d met crossing the border from Cambodia and again in Thakhek and Vang Vieng. She was with two friends she’d made on her travels, a long-haired dude from Utah called Cody and a chilled French-Italian girl named Margaux.
We teamed up, appropriating a water barrel outside a shop on the main stretch, and drenched the bikers, the pickup riders and the children who foolishly broke our cross-street truce.
When it all became too much, we backed off into an alley kitchen to eat (unfortunately quite bland) noodles and chicken rice, while watching a little boy taunting the tourists with his butt.
When the sun descended, the water dried up, but the nightlife was not what you might have expected, for the amount of alcohol consumed – many of the bars were shut, with their staff all off for New Year, and those that were open served a predominantly western clientele (which is fine, of course).
That first night, we hoped to find Utopia – a tucked-away bar well-known for its relaxed atmosphere and good music – but, when we finally found it down a series of obscured alleys, it was shut, so we ended the evening with a basket of grilled street food, the highlight being sticky rice wrapped around sausage with an insane chilli sauce.
Do you see? I Kuang Si…
Cody was keen to see the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls the following day, as his visa was running out and would need to leave promptly, so the five of us met in the morning (along with a Polish chap called Simon) while Cody negotiated for a songthaew to take us there.
It was an interesting journey. We stopped to pick up some sandwiches and while we did the driver touted for more passengers, bringing on board three Scandinavians.
It was an hour’s drive to Kuang Si Falls over country roads and through thick forest. We might have guessed that an open-air tuk-tuk was fair game for a drenching, which we summarily received as we passed each village en route, not to mention the music-blaring trucks bursting with locals doing drive-bys.
In between the aqua-attacks, one of the Scandinavians – a heavily tattooed girl in her early 20s – began accruing passengers of her own: first a giant butterfly landed on her arm and clung there for several miles, soon joined by a dragonfly that had caught some crossfire in a water-bombing raid.
Then, without prologue or preview, one of the benches in the songthaew suddenly collapsed, dropping Simon, Veronique and two Scandies on their behinds. I guffawed – I’m sorry to say – until we realised Simon’s camera had been under the bench. Mercifully, it remained unscathed, vindicating my earlier merriment.
That throng, th-throng throng throng
When we reached the falls’ wider park, we were confronted with the horror of a national holiday in a national park. Our insect companions disembarked without so much as a by-your-leave, so we made arrangements to be picked up later and made our way through the throng to the ticket booth.
After a short walk through the forest, past Lao women selling butterfly chicken and the weird drained/mixed/refilled eggs we’d seen on the buses, we came to an enclosure housing sun bears rescued from captivity. They’re surprisingly agile things, despite weighing a tonne and moving quite slowly.
Further into the park, trickling streams heralded the first pools, each one with that odd, milky turquoise water accrued from calcium carbonate deposits in the surrounding mineral-spring limestone. It’s very beautiful, though stifled somewhat by the sheer hordes of holidaymakers rushing about, shoving past and shouting to their slower friends.
Past what you might call the “children’s pools”, you come across an old wooden watermill, which is fed from a larger pool beyond, where teenagers (and me) throw themselves from a tree branch into the water. Be careful though, it isn’t deep. I hit the ground hard under the water, so winced every time some Lao kid was doing backflips.
The waterfall proper is quite a beautiful one: it’s sheltered by the forest canopy and comprises several layers of rock, forming disparate cascades that merge at the glorious pale-blue basin at its base.
We climbed round to the top of the falls to take in the view. While there, we were offered a raft ride upstream into the jungle. The chap offering it was wearing what appeared to be a park-warden’s uniform.
Hook, line and sinker
When we agreed to take the raft (for a measly 20,000 kip), he counted us and said (through the power of mime) there were too many of us for his bamboo vessel, so one of us would have to punt us out, while he stayed behind and put his feet up.
So, like a cross between Tarzan and the old Cornetto advert, Cody took up the bamboo pole and punted us out. However, it was almost immediately clear there was nothing to see upstream, just a dirty pool surrounded by jungle.
We had an explore, as far as we could, but there was no path (beaten track or otherwise) so we carefully shuffled back aboard and Cody punted us back (though with considerably less finesse than on the way out).
Bit of a scam, if an inexpensive one, but we had a few yucks getting our butts wet as the overloaded raft gasped for air under the weight of six grown western folk.
We got back to town – drenched again during our return trip, despite rolling down plastic windows for cover (the scamps would run up to the tuk-tuk and hurl a bucket inside) – and found the festivities still ongoing. It gets a bit tiring, after a while; if you’re not actively engaging, you tend to tense up, constantly wary of where the next deluge is coming from.
A few evenings that week we met up with Veronique and Margaux at their hostels to drink cheap whiskey and chat rubbish to the backpackers staying there. We met a young lad from my home town and a German girl who lived in the same area of North London as us. Small world?
We got involved once more on the last day of the water madness; I had discovered that using an ice bucket from a restaurant was a far more effective weapon than my pump-action, so I took up position by an insanely loud bar (I think actually it was just a shop with speakers and a hose) and went about a merry soaking.
It was there we (and I say “we” purposefully) spotted the biggest tits in Laos – fabulous, sculpted breasts, bursting from an exposed bra. Her bright red lips and round, muscular bottom were only betrayed by the man’s enormous Adam’s apple. Of course, I sent Swarana to surreptitiously take photographs from the other side of the street (purely to document the moment, you understand).
An entire troupe of trannies flirted and flaunted themselves atop a roadside table, drinking and squirting and dancing and soaking – and nary an eyelid was batted in their direction. In fact, trans-gender or transvestite women seemed to be everywhere, most commonly adorning pickup trucks as the designated vehicle mascot.
As we sat on a shop-front step watching this marvel of gender-abandonment, we were confronted with a completely unrelated and gruesome spectacle: Lao fellas were handing each other the shop’s hose and shoving it down the front of their shorts. We can only assume it was to facilitate thigh-trickle weeing by obfuscating the yellow hue of said urine with a torrent of water. Hence the headline – “Pii Mai pants”…
When New Year was over, waking up and going outside felt like we’d been taken to some other town in our sleep. It was like Frank Drebin falling in love and noticing things for the first time: “Birds singing… dew, glistening on a newly formed leaf… stoplights.”
Without the sense of dread at every corner, without the adrenaline of water-based combat, we were finally free to just have a look at the place. We found quiet, calm streets of cute colonial buildings, shaded from the sun by trees, and a general sense of chilled sophistication.
Veronique and Margaux were apparently big fans of the Laos national dish, laap, which I am ashamed to say we had not yet tried. We’d heard people in Don Det say it was unpleasant, but looking back that said more about Don Det than it did about laap itself, which is minced lamb, pork or chicken with mint and lime – like a meat mojito. It’s delicious, and we made up for lost time by ordering one for practically every remaining meal in Laos.
We took a walk up the Buddhist mountain for a gander at the view, and met the girls up there. They were waiting for the sun to set to release their sparrows – no, that’s not prison lingo, you can buy two tiny birds in a paper cage for the sole purpose of letting them go. I don’t know where the hawkers caught them from in the first place, but it’s a religious thing, innit, so don’t question it.
We also spent an afternoon at La Pistoche, a swimming pool on the west side of town. A good swim-up bar served cocktails and exquisite chocolate shakes; you could just about block out the screaming kids having fun splashing and diving in the pool-proper.
Our next stop was Vietnam, but rather than brave the 26-hour bus journey (advice from friends included: “I got the bus. DO NOT GET THE BUS” and “It was hell! Good luck with it”) we decided to fly to Hanoi, but before we went to the airport, we wanted to check out the bamboo bridge.
Reaching over the Nam Khon, the bamboo bridge has a toll (albeit a meagre one) because it gets swept away during the wet season every year, and every year they build it anew.
It’s understandably rickety – why make it sturdy if it’s scheduled for destruction within six months? The other side is home to a small village, as well as a posh bar owned by the folks at La Pistoche. Though a little pricey, the food is good, particularly the sticky rice with aubergine dip – scrumalicious.
So… Laos, eh? My overwhelming feeling was that we hadn’t taken advantage of it as much as we might have done due to illness. On the other hand, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang more than made up for it, and we’d made some excellent friends. If you come here, hire bikes where you can and bring antibiotics.
Up close and personal
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