Water Wonderland

All the windows of our hot and sweaty minivan shut as we entered Laos cultural capital Luang Prabang through a sea of locals, young and old, armed with hosepipes, water pistols and all sorts of contraptions filled with water ready to spill over passers by. Whether on foot, on moped, on bus or on duty, all visitors and locals are subjected to an array of soaking if and when they ventured out of the door.

The build up to Lao New Year had begun, and along with the classic dress up and get drunk approach to celebration, a nationwide water fight commences under the pretence of wishing one another good luck through offering a ‘cleansing’ with water. At this time of year it is not wrong for two 26 year olds from the UK to purchase state of the art water pistols and join a guerrilla army of friends new and old to prowl the streets of this otherwise culturally rich city. In fact, it is necessary. All is done in good humour despite the amount of alcohol consumed (mainly by the local Laos). Pick up trucks filled with wet, dancing locals, dodgy sound systems and a dustbin or two filled with water, bounce their way down the historic Indo-European roads and ornate temples soaking everyone in sight and taking as good as they get. Families and friends gather outside coffee shops, grocery stores and bars armed with water pistols, sometimes supplemented with dye or flour just to make it that little bit more messy.

When the festival is not on, Luang Prabang shows a different face. Its Indo-European heritage buildings, religious significance for Lao Buddhists and riverside location make it a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a traditional town full of temples and golden Buddha statues where the residents still awake every morning at 5am for the daily alms giving to the monks. Amongst the temples remnants from the French era dot the streets and the restaurant menus in the guise of coffee, baguettes, real cheese and steaks. Bakeries and charismatic guest houses dominate the main tourist haunts and the roadside baguette stalls sell the petrol like Lao coffee alongside fresh fruit and Oreo smoothies – yum! Luang Prabang is definitely a place for eating well (see http://www.theveggiebus.org/luangprabang for details) and slowly watching the days slip by with some temple visits. That is of course, unless it’s Lao New Year.

30km outside Luang Prabang sits a beautiful aqua blue waterfall. Most tourists get up early and jump in a shared song thaw (open taxi) to reach it via a steep hilly road. Along with three friends, Carl (yes another one, slightly younger and taller), Lin and Frederick (an enthusiastic Flemish couple) we’d met in Nong Kiaw, we decided that renting bikes would be a good idea. Our London friends who we had also reunited with in Luang Prabang warned us that it wouldn’t be. And it wasn‘t. The road to the waterfall is particularly hilly but would have probably been a little more manageable if we had spent the extra 20,000 kip (£1.70) each on mountain bikes with gears. Our enthusiasm waned as racing each other up the various hills, peddling furiously as the incline increased became less fun and less viable. We re-grouped after pushing our bikes up a particularly steep hill and all admitted, only 10km in, that the ride was a lot harder than we expected. It is a mystery why we thought we could manage it, as everyone had told us that it would be hard and had warned us against renting bikes with no gears for the trip. Luckily for us an empty pick up truck was driving past at that very moment. Spontaneously Frederick stuck out his thumb and we loaded up the truck. A bumpy ride commenced and as the truck struggled up some of the hills we were very glad of our ride but guiltily made the decision to ride the whole way back.

 

The truck took us 4km from the waterfall entrance. Huffing and puffing we rode the final kilometres to the waterfall and were there nice and early as our ride had not taken as long as expected (yes… because we got in a truck). We entered the ’protected area’ and first encountered a black bear enclosure where endangered black bears were given a new home and served as an extra tourist attraction for the waterfall. These bears completely epitomised the word ’teddy bears’ and the connotations it brings. Playfully they rolled over and tumbled with each other, stopping momentarily to chew on leaves and twigs or pose freely for photos.

 

Passing the bear enclosure we entered the jungle that lead to the first aqua turquoise lagoon where water overflowed from a pool above. The water appeared almost chemically enhanced and the lagoon like swimming area almost man-made. We were still hot and sweaty from the ride but decided to give ourselves an extra challenge by taking the wrong path up to the very top of the waterfall before jumping in. A steep climb commenced and we joined other tourists to admire the lush scenery and mystical water.

 

New Year celebrations were evidently at the fore-front of the local psyche as the local and visiting Laos unpacked water-pistols, picnics and portable karaoke machines for the celebrations. Rewarding ourselves for our climb to the top and back down again, we stripped down to our swimming gear and plunged ourselves into the cold turquoise water amongst small water skaters. We had our own private pool and basked in the sun, wondering where all the other tourists had got too. On our way back down we discovered the main swimming area and felt a little foolish, but also a little glad for our own private lagoon.

 

We soon dried off upon mounting our bikes and soaring downhill in the afternoon sun. Now the traditional villages we’d passed on the way were in full spirit and full of locals whose delight at seeing Westerners on bikes was astounding. Screeches of excitement and a rush to fill up water pistols played out at every village we approached and in the tropical climate we were glad to receive. Those villages fortunate enough to be placed on an uphill incline found particular pleasure in walking beside us and soaking us repeatedly as we struggled to move our peddles up hill.

 

We pushed our bikes up one hill but eventually made it back to Luang Prabang. As we entered the town we were greeted with black, blue and red paints accompanied by flour and of course all washed down with some water. Before taking our bikes back we stopped off at our friends guest house where Carl and I were attacked by a family of four children, their parents and grandparents who all took pleasure in soaking the helpless Westerners on the bikes. The dad lifted his youngest so that he was able to aim his water pistol right in my face. We soon recovered our own pistols and I was able to give this four year old a taste of his own medicine.

 

New Years day came and the processions started in Luang Prabang. School children, group elders and the towns mass of monks took to the streets in a parade which was subjected to open fire. Old women would approach the monks with pails of water making sure each monk got their equal share. The younger generation stuck to water pistols as their weapons of choice. But even with the New Year well wishes in my head, I found it difficult to bring myself to shoot the monks. A ‘Miss Lao’ contest promised much but the parade seemed to dominated by those whose sex resembled that of a Thai ladyboy rather than a national treasure.

We met up with our Aussie friend Jorge again and would follow him to his next destination, Phonsavan. We both agreed that we’d had a lot of fun but were longing to be dry for a while; as was our wrinkly skin. Carls gun was stolen by a young girl and I donated mine to a young boy under the arrangement that he would stop throwing flour at me. He soaked me instead. So as New Year celebrations started to draw to an end, so did our time in Luang Prabang.

 

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