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April 16, 2005

Sabaidi Pi Mai

I arrived in Lao just in time for New Year's (also being celebrated right now in Thailand and Cambodia), and it's a lot of fun. It was kind of an accident that I got here at the right time, and I'm really glad I did. Apparently things are much crazier in other cities like Luang Prabang, Lao, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, but there's plenty of action here in the capital, Vientiane, as well (here it lasts just three days, in other places, up to a week or more!).

Every afternoon, the normally fairly empty streets fill with traffic, especially pick-up trucks with tons of people in the back, and they throw water on each other, people in other trucks or on motorbikes or bicycles or in tuk-tuks, and on people on the streets, and the people on the streets fight back. The most common weapons are buckets, water balloons, hoses, and super-soakers, and all are very effective. It's pretty much impossible to walk a block without getting doused at least once. I found a kind of protected place to take some pictures this afternoon, and stayed dry, but as soon as I headed out to walk one block down to the river, a lovely, friendly woman with a big bucket of water walked right up to me, wished me a happy new year (sabaidi pi mai), pulled out the front of my shirt, and poured the whole bucketful down my front! I made it down to a cafe on the corner without any more incidents, luckily, since I didn't have any way to fight back. I dropped off my daypack (everything inside secure in plastic bags, of course!) and headed out to the place next door to see if I could find a bucket, and got completely drenched from head to toe by the crowd on the sidewalk within 10 seconds. Of course, once you're wet, it doesn't matter quite so much, so I joined in and fought back as best I could with a sawed-off half of a water bottle! Every time I went to fill it up, though, the girl who works at the cafe would spray me with the hose rather than filling my bottle! A rather futile effort, but it was really fun. There's kind of an understanding that the whole thing dies down around 5, before the sun sets and things cool off, so then a bunch of us collapsed in plastic chairs and had a beer while we dried off.

The locals also take buckets of water and colored liquids (maybe broth? I have no idea) to the temples--there are a ton here--and toss water on the Buddhas and small altars, and offer things to the monks.

A lot of people had told me how different Lao was compared to Vietnam--they said the people are friendly, things are laid-back, and much less of a hassle--and I wondered how readily apparent that would be to me. It didn't take long to see and feel the difference. The cab driver from the airport was friendly and polite and took me directly where I wanted to go. I walked around town a lot yesterday and today, and maybe four tuk-tuk drivers, total, offered me a ride (in Vietnam it was about four every five minutes). When I said "no, thanks," they actually smiled at me--a normal, polite, person-to-person smile. And, no one is tugging on my sleeve to sell me things or coax me into their shop. It's a very nice change. With the festival, it's also been a great chance to mix with the locals and be part of the fun in a way that's very hard to do during any normal day. And the people here are normally pretty reserved, I think, so it's really cool to have a chance to see them let their hair down, so to speak.

But back to Vietnam for a bit. I went to see Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, in Hanoi, which was quite an experience. There are about 20 guards in and around the building, and the whole thing is very regimented and strict. After going through a metal detector, we were escorted across the courtyard and into the building, where we were told to keep quiet and quickly file past his body. I was busy looking at Uncle Ho, as he is called in Vietnam, since that's why we were there, and one of the guards grabbed my arm--totally scaring me--to get me to keep moving. Uncle Ho looked pale, and waxy, and not very real at all. It's disturbing that he was embalmed and put on display--he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered between the north, center, and south of the country, to be with the people. Instead, they have to come to him, and see him in a glass box.

Chris and Amy, my companions of the last few weeks, and I also went to Sapa and to Ha Long Bay. It was mostly foggy and a bit rainy in Ha Long Bay during our three days there, but we lucked out with a beautiful sunny day for our kayaking through the limestone islands, and it was a lot of fun. In Sapa, a town up in the mountains an overnight train ride away from Hanoi, we relaxed, bought some local handicrafts, and went on a trek to a few nearby villages, guided by a local H'mong girl who was very sweet. When we got on the train to go back to Hanoi, we discovered we were in a fan sleeper, despite having paid for a/c--and that everyone in our car had been similarly hoodwinked. Five of us spent an hour the next day at the travel agent attempting to set things right--a very frustrating experience, reinforcing our growing desire to get out of Vietnam asap.

Posted by Amy on April 16, 2005 07:32 AM
Category: Lao

i'm in chiang mai right now and it's been utter madness here. it's basically a water warzone. i've had a ridiculous amount of fun.

laos really is a nice change of pace isn't it? everyone is just so friendly and so genuine!

Posted by: vlad on April 16, 2005 08:34 AM

Forgot to mention what a sleepy place Vientiane is! The festival has ended, and the place is quiet, quiet, quiet. It being Sunday emphasizes that even more, but still--this is by far the mellowest capital I've ever been to. I can only imagine what the rest of the country is like, and I'll begin to find out as I move on to Vang Vieng, three hours north, tomorrow.

Posted by: amy on April 17, 2005 07:07 AM

New Year's sounds fun... sounds a little like Holi in India (they use colored powder instead of water). It's the same concept, throw it on as many people as possible. Glad you enjoyed yourself!

Posted by: Nadia on April 18, 2005 03:58 PM
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