Monday, April 15, 2013

Water Water Everywhere in Laos New Year

Like to swim outside of a pool? 
Come to Southeast Asia the middle of April.
Happy New Year Laos!
The water squirting holiday
Laos New Year is three days of dodging partying people tossing water at you, your vehicle, your sweaty body, your pride. Families and massive groups of Laotians and tourists (this is when the Europeans and Americans appear) ride in pickup trucks through the various packed narrow streets with the latest of big plastic water guns as their weapons and squirt water at all spectators and fighters on the sidewalks and in the middle of the streets doing the same thing in return. It’s completely chaotic and charged up by the fact everyone has a Laotian beer in one hand a squirt gun or bucket in the other. Drunkeness is ok. It’s like a wet Mardi Gras and just know, you are going to get sopping wet no matter where you go. Wear dark clothes. 

Although the water wars are part of a Buddhist festival with a purpose, Luang Prabang is filled with not only Laotian uplanders, lowlanders, outlanders (as they refer to tribes in this country), but thousands of tourist who let it all hang out in a Carnival fashion. No one gets mad, just inebriated. The more water thrown upon you, the better your luck in the new year.  This occasion is the once a year obligatory washing of everything Buddha. All Buddhas. All statues, of which there are millions. And as well the black iron pots are cleaned and that just adds more fodder to the situation because young people take the black ash from these normally cooking vehicles and rub it on their faces and yours if they can get close enough.  There are also red and green powders that locals rub in their hands and on their faces and other’s faces and even put handprints on passing mini-vans. The only ones who are not to be sprayed are Monks and police (although I saw many drenched police - probably in the cross-fire.

View from the caves
Long tailed boat at caves
 Getting somewhere  these days is almost impossible. Traffic creeps at a sleepy pace through charming streets bordered with shops, bars, restaurants and lovely homes.  And the narrow streets are crammed with markets. There is the morning market, the night market and the all day markets allowed during the festival (venders risk their products will be watered so plastic is placed over the wares as the day wanes and the beer and whiskey get serious.)  And there is a fair with ferris wheels and games and a two day beauty contest that has a volume of noise one can hardly escape til early in the morning. After awhile, one gets used to it.

Probably the most important reprieve and obligation is to take the four hour trip in a long tail boat up the Mekong River to the Caves of Pak Ou.  These  caves in a limestone cliff way off the beaten track are hard to get to because they are on the other side of the wide Mekong River and there are no bridges across the river as it passes through Laos.
(Can you imagine no bridges across the Mississippi?) Apparently these caves were founded by an “uplander” who had a animist belief and each year sacrificed a water buffalo, chicken and pig on the premise. (There is a lot of talk about ethnicity in Laos - which region someone comes from. Uplanders originally migrated from Mongolia and Northern China. There are 49 tribes in Laos.)
Don't Ask: bear paws

Washing the Buddhas
Every nook and cranny in these tall ample caves is filled with thousands of Buddha statues - tiny ones, gigantic ones, every type of material, bronze, brass, ceramic, glass, aluminum, silver, gold, in every type of pose, and all placed there by the faithful over the years. Pilgrims come here to climb up the awkward stairs (painted white) and to pay homage with the banana leaf and marigold sculptures, incense, and kneeling pain on concrete floors. But today, on the New Year’s festival, plastic bottles of “holy water” carrying a frangipani flower with 5 petals can be purchased to wash all the statuary, to cleanse Buddha. A visitor doesn’t have to get all the statues (there are way too many that are inaccessible) but he can be successful just splashing the ones within range. It’s kind of like a Lenten cleansing of the soul as well. 

How do you take your whiskey?
Snake, Centipede, scorpion whiskey
There’s more than just holy duties on this long trip. Along the way, when the river is low, as it is at this time of year, women can be seen panning for gold on the other side of the Mekong. And there are interesting villages to visit (requires a hike up primitive steps) where the Hmong and other ethnic groups display every kind of silk fabric you could ever hope for, the usual tourist trinkets, and something that made my stomach turn. In one village, whiskey is being stilled from rice live. But this whiskey, bottled individually on the spot, is poured over various creatures placed in the bottles: snakes, scorpions, giant black centipedes, and other horrific creatures. People drink these whiskeys for curative hope. For instance, the snake whiskey helps cure severe back pain; the scorpion, ankle and knee injuries ( good for marathon runners?) ; the centipede the heart and digestion problems. But thats not all. There are more serious giant jugs of whiskey in which float bear paws (for virility) and, horrid thought, elephant penis for energy.  These creatures must soak in the whiskey for four years and then the ailing take a swig of it after a meal until the pains disappear. 

Gourmet Laos Lunch
At the Elephant Restaurant I had a true Laos meal for lunch - hold the chili peppers please - and it included a dessert of fruit and  frozen French macaroons (with ice cream between their layers. This was a French colony). Then a visit to the fascinating but small Cultural museum (Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre) where gear, tools and dress of some of the major tribes is displayed so a visitor gets some idea of how all the different tribes are able to get along (a girl cannot marry within her own tribe) and how some young girls, instead of marrying at the acceptable age of 15 to boys not of their own selection make the best of the situation.  Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage town.
After these long days of walking and climbing, back at the Satri House, a half hour foot massage awaits on a lounge chair outside between the various swimming pools. Now that’s a way to lock into a meditative state and finally peace.

2 comments:

BEARANGEL said...

Hope you wore black!
hugs, Lou

Anonymous said...

Audrey,
Apparently the people of Luang Prabang are happy and fun-loving.
When our sons were growing up, they had huge water guns. If we had only known, we could have saved one, so you could spray back and protect yourself.
Between the two of us, we have all of the ailments those horrid whiskeys are supposed to cure. The snake whiskey for back pains would really be helpful. However, having the ailments would be better than drinking the different whiskeys. Of course, if you consumed enough of any of the whiskeys and survived, you wouldn't care what was in the jar. Also, you wouldn't feel any kind of pain.
We would prefer to meet you at the Elephant Restaurant and have the fruit and frozen French Macaroons with ice cream. Sounds scrumptious!
The foot massage at the end of your day there is probably very appealing. You are doing so much and hopefully your amazing adventure is still everything you want it to be.
Seems like you have already been gone for months. We miss you and will be glad when you are safely home.
Lots and lots of love,
Geraldean & Judge