When I travelled through Laos 15 years ago, I inadvertently stumbled upon Songkran Festival in Laos. I literally was without a clue it was happening. It was also the time when I watched the Twin Towers collapse in New York; an event which would unleash events which still continue to this day. It’s funny to look back on certain moments and consider the impact they have had.
At that time, people were saying ‘Laos is like Vietnam was 10 years ago’! Now I don’t know about you but that type of comment always strikes me as a tad on the wanky side. Even that intrepid bunch that travelled 10 years earlier, we’re still 10 years behind those before them! It really doesn’t make you a better traveller but I do understand the reasons for such a comment – less tourism, not as built up, fewer English speakers etc. – I digress!
Having arrived in Bangkok I stayed 20 minutes off the Khao San Road, beside the glamorous sewage filled water channels; where empty bottles and ‘rustic’ shacks on stilts lined the shoreline. I like Bangkok, I really do. It is one of those manic cities which has a certain smell, not a sweet smell but more of a bearable stench which penetrates your nose under the clammy heat. It is busy with manic drivers, and three different tastes will hit your senses at once but I love it. It isn’t a boring city. If you want markets, kick-boxing, dancing, tourism, boat trips, relaxation or just to get into mischief Bangkok isn’t closed. It doesn’t say ‘We are open from 9-5 Monday to Friday’!
All around the air was punctured and electrically charged with excitement, like a kid before Christmas who doesn’t know whether to be on his best behaviour or erupt into a full scale riot of naughtiness. Buckets and water pistols were filled in preparation for Songkran festival, which then patrolled the Khao San Road. We hit the tarmac en route to the friendship bridge which borders Thailand and Laos, bribing our way across with USD27, and changing money into thick wads (seriously you could fill a brown paper bag). I never understood why it is an uneven number, just round up and down. Don’t they realise how hard it is to get USD1 notes in Bangkok, whilst sweating from every possible pore under in 100% humidity!
We changed vehicles at the border into an open air vehicle which essentially made us glorious targets, like lambs to the slaughter in dry clothes. Songkran Festival is the traditional New Year’s Day, but it is essentially a celebration and how best to celebrate than by throwing water and flour over strangers – that is the type of party I want to go to! The Lao people are experts at water fights. Forget what you thought you knew and imagine pick-up trucks driving around with barrels of water with all manner of things in them, and a man at the back with flour bombs. Seriously, I was impressed. The Lao people had done their homework and war was upon us.
As we drove higher along narrow roads and into the mountains past lush jungle, colourful birds flew overhead and small children played football on muddy paths. The gauge was set at high alert as we approached towns, at which time the driver slowed to a crawl, leaving perfect vantage spots for an ambush. In an open air vehicle there really is nowhere to hide so we armed ourselves with $2 water pistols capable of momentarily dousing a shirt and gathered handfuls of flour. The driver took delight in stopping during an all-out assault, to be fair I’d do the same. It made what was a pretty uncomfortable journey into an enjoyable battlefield; and clearly remembered even 15 years later.
Laos is spectacular as are the Lao people, full of joy and able to judge at face value, they are humble people. Ornate monk filled temples dotted each town as incense aromas spiced the air, monkeys clambered away from market traders and fresh fruit juices were downed as jungles views stretched out of sight. I could talk forever about Laos but that isn’t the focus of my blog so will finish with the penultimate Songkran festival party in Luang Prabang, the capital city of Laos.
We geared up with arm fulls of plastic bags to protect camera and money before stepping out of the guesthouse into a swarm of activity. People littered the streets with smiles from ear to ear, enhanced by cheap liquor and successful targets hit. We launched a full scale assault and dodged targets down to the Mekong River before boarding long-tail boats to an island in the middle of the river. Dye-coloured faces greeted us with water bombs and clouds of flour, children ducked and retaliated with fierce precision, cameras clicked from the side whilst water stained them and drunken people hoisted bottles of the unknown. We swam in the brown murky water without the usual consideration for sickness and poured liquor down our throats.
I stayed on the island in battle for over 3 hours before retaliating to the comfort of the streets where loud music and a water source facilitated the after party. Gangs on both sides of the street fired liquid torpedoes at one another and shared bottles of beer. The sun shone all day long and it was a free-for-all, it was exciting and it was fun. But more importantly it was a local tradition that the people of Laos had welcomed us into, unchallenged and with wide smiles.
Songkran festival is the kind of real experience that leaves us travellers slightly drunk, wet and wishing we had left out cameras at home…but ultimately happy and content! Could this be perfection? I think so.
Happy travelling folks.
If you fancy reading some of my other Asia articles, click the links below:
Getting naked in Japan – you guide to naked bathing
Hiking the Great Wall of China
Wearing India like a badge of honour
Karni Mata – temple of rats
Up early with the birds for Tsukili Fish market in Tokyo
The Travellers Pursuit of Happiness