Wet and whacky in Laos
See in the New Year with a three-day water fight
“Sabai di pi mai!” come the shouts from the Laotians crammed into the backs of cars and trucks, parading down the streets of Vientiane, the usually quiet capital of Laos. In return I shout, “Happy New Year!” Then moments later, the sky comes down in torrents. It’s not rain, but water from large containers on the backs of the trucks that’s scooped up enthusiastically and thrown in the direction of anyone looking in need of a cool shower.
The grins on the faces of the Laotians reveal this is their highlight of the year, and understandably so. The New Year celebration is essentially a three-day water fight mixed with barbecues, parties, music and parades. Most foreigners visit the enchanting old capital of Luang Prabang (Laos’s old capital) for the New Year; however, there is a different type of magic experienced in Vientiane where tourists are few. The locals are so welcoming that for a few days you can almost forget your origins and begin to feel like one of the citizens.
It’s a contagious feeling that’s hard to relinquish, which helps explain why the official holiday period of three days (April 13-15 this year) often stretches to more than five days of festivities.
A water bomb comes hurling past. Bursting on the car beside me, it sends out a stench of fish oil as I swerve my fixed-gear rental bike away from the attacking group. Perhaps not everyone celebrates strictly in line with tradition. Throwing water at a passer-by is supposed to be a blessing and purification for the New Year. People visit the monasteries and make offerings to give them luck for the 12 months ahead. They pour scented water over Buddhist statues and collect the liquid to use when blessing others.
But more often than not, instead of a kind old lady brushing this blessed water over your head, it’s huge buckets of water (sometimes chilled in ice), flour bombs and dyed water thrown with speed and purpose. It’s all harmless fun, and no one protests, just accepting the blessing or returning fire. The temperature can be so hot at this time of year that the water is already a blessing, even if not touched by an image of Buddha.
I put away my bike and make my way to the local markets on foot for my daily barbecued chicken on a skewer, camera partially wrapped with plastic in one hand, water pistol in the other for protection. I should have bought a bigger gun. The weak stream of water it produces is no