War & Peace in Laos

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After breakfast in Nong Khiaw, we loaded our luggage onto the orange Stray Bus and waved as it drove away without us. Instead of bussing, we hit the road… err, the river… in a boat for a six hour ride to Luang Prabang. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to have a break from motion sickness and to see Laos from a different perspective. Mountain villages have their charm, but there’s something so peaceful about observing river life from a slow-moving boat.

Kids were quick to wave at our passing boat; most adults eyed us suspiciously

Creatures of the Ou River

Peace

Six hours of gentle gliding through the river lead us to the banks of Luang Prabang, a city known for its French provincial architecture, early morning Takuhatsu (alms for the monks) and of course, a raucous New Year’s celebration already well underway when we docked. We’d planned to meet the Stray bus on arrival, check in to our guesthouse, change into party-appropriate clothes and enjoy the festivities, but since the streets were jammed with revelers, the bus couldn’t get to us. We had no swimsuits or shorts or water guns or camera battery chargers. So…

TIP: Keep your mouth closed unless you want to swallow water you ought not be swallowing

…what do you do when plans don’t work out? Throw your hands up, find a bucket and get soaking wet! We found the guest house, dropped off passports & non-waterproof cameras for safekeeping and within minutes, we’d joined the party already in progress. It wasn’t hard to procure buckets, cups and a free hose from our guest house, so within moments of checking in, Anna, Amber, Franz and I were in the street whooping it up, soaking passing motorbikes and tuk-tuks like the locals did and beginning to experience the euphoria of the Water Festival.

Falang on Falang violence

Once I got over my initial timidity about dumping water directly on someone’s head, I had no qualms about splashing strangers, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, ladyboys, kids, falangs and even a random Florida Gator fan I found down one wet street. (I couldn’t bring myself to dump a bucket of water on old folks, though. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.)

Every street was filled with soaking wet revelers; there’s NO staying dry at this party

Our party of four (dubbed the Cold War kids as we represent USA, Russia & Germany) soon abandoned our guest house on a semi-quiet side street in favor of a long, miles-long jaunt around town. Making our way on foot (Bare feet, that is. I know. It’s no wonder I picked up some nasty stomach bug.) we encountered hundreds and hundreds of Laotions & falangs armed with every type of water gun you can imagine. Pickup trucks loaded with Laos kids & buckets of water slowly cruised the main street through town, and groups took turns getting wet and soaking others.

What the what?! That is not water.

Since temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees during the hot dry season, no one really minds the constant dousing in cold water, but as we learned in Luang Prabang, Laotians have added to the arsenal of liquids to chuck at passersby. We were told to expect shaving cream, baby powder, paint and even motor oil, and did we ever get it.

Jamming to the legit sounds of Justin Beiber’s “Baby”

We ran around Luang Prabang for hours, from hose to hose and bucket to bucket, dousing others and being doused in return, making new friends, dancing to Bieber and Beyonce with groups of raucous teens and seeing the wild side of a normally conservative, quiet society. Only monks are exempt from soaking; I saw people dump freezing buckets of water on completely dry tourists with all their luggage and even directly into cars onto drivers who forgot to lock the doors.

If you dare show up in Laos the second week of April, just accept that you’ll be wet the whole time. And not just wet. I was alternately covered in green, red and blue paint, followed by motor oil, topped off with a splash of baby powder for good measure. There’s no looking pretty on this day.

Later on at dinner, once we’d scrubbed off the paint and oil, we all agreed that our day celebrating the Water Festival in Luang Prabang was without exaggeration, one of the most fun days any of us had ever had in our entire lives.

Up next… Another town, another celebration

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