Saturday, 23 April 2011

Sabaidee Pi Mai! (Happy New Year)

The year can only be "new" once, right?  Not when you live in Laos!  Last week I had the opportunity to renew any New Year's resolutions which may have survived into the wee small hours of January 1st 2011, but soon to be broken shortly thereafter.  Why? Because last week was Lao New Year, or "Pi Mai" in Lao language.  On Wednesday the entire nation faithfully downed tools (hoe, buffalo, pen, keyboard - whatever the profession) and took up arms.....with water guns.

It's any kid's dream and for one week only, a nation's occupation; water is absolutely everywhere as the whole country turns to participate in a one great big waterfight (complete with flour and colour dye just to make everything that little bit more pleasant).  No one is exempt - young, old, rich, poor, local or falang (foreigner) - from the soaking.  And soaked we were.  From waterguns, cannons, hosepipes, buckets, funnels and rubbish bins the liquid poured down.  So what is the appropriate response in all the mayhem?   Well, you know what they say...if you can't beat them, join them.  So we did.

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Of course there is method in the madness. Traditionally water was used to clean the home, temple and buddha images once a year, wish people luck and just generally give everything and everyone a spring clean and fresh start for the coming year. Whilst these traditions do still take place in Lao homes, the public image of Pi Mai seems to have been somewhat thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, with the "cleansing" of people (!) taking centre stage and becoming the more prominent and memorable image of this festival.

For the festival itself I was able to maximise my days off and spent a few days in a village up north before the celebrations began (more on that later).  On Wednesday 13th I travelled to Luang Prabang - the ancient Lao capital and *the place* to be for Pi Mai.   Thousands of people - both Lao and foreign - converged on this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town to take part in the multi-day waterfight.  I was joined by a few other UNICEF and Vientiane friends for the party and we also met lots of wide-eyed backpackers.  Each day followed a fairly similar pattern: a relaxed start enabled the troops to regroup and gather ammunition and before the celebrations (/battles) commenced around 11am and continued until about 6pm.  The afternoon was taken up with waterfights and plenty of Beer Lao in different locations, depending on the day (a sandbank island on the Mekong, the main street to watch the parade one way, the main street to watch the parade going the other way - you get the picture).  The first few nights were spent watching the "Miss Luang Prabang" competition, but otherwise evenings were fairly quiet, with most of the town abiding by the midnight curfew.

By Saturday it was all getting a bit much, so myself and some Vientiane friends decided to get our water "fix" in another way, by visiting Kuang Si Waterfalls.  These are absolutely stunning - a series of aqua-blue cascading pools lead you up a hill to the base of a powerful waterfall.  You can climb all the way up, but swimming and jumping off the rope swing were better options for me... :)

All in all, a wet, but wonderful week.