In April, weather in Vientiane changes from extremely warm to “oven breeze weather.” From April to June, the only respite from the skin-singeing sunlight is the breeze you feel on your motorbike, which instead of a relief feels like…a gust of wind from the oven, minus the chocolate chip cookie smell.
Conveniently, just as the dry season barrenness and oven breeze extremity seem to be reaching their most unbearable peak, the holiday of Pi Mai Lao, or the Lao New Year, rolls around. The Buddhist new year water festival is celebrated by different names in similar forms in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, and I had been looking forward to the festivities since last year.
During Pi Mai, it is as if all of the rules and conventions are suspended. All forms of business shut down, and the city dances in the streets. People wear skimpier clothing, or matching neon t-shirts, or crazy accessories. Cross-dressing is not uncommon. Taps are turned on and water flows endlessly, much like the beer, which seemingly magically regenerates (along with peoples’ tolerance for drinking it). Music throbs through the air, a festive mix of Lao traditional styles and pumping American top 40. No drivers or pedestrians are safe from water attacks during the three day extravaganza.
A neighborhood party at a Lao friend’s house. All the required elements: laap and spring rolls, and people of all ages cutting loose. The 5 year-olds wield the hose, the older generation pulls me onto the dance floor to sway to a cowbell-heavy Lao beat, and the fraternity-style antics of the younger crowd involve lipstick and flour and ripped tshirts. The sun sets as the dancing has moved to the street, where empty Beerlao crates become stages, and suddenly being soaking wet begins to feel chilly.
Elle, my oldest friend, who lives in Indonesia doing Peace Corps (I visited her there in March), arrives, along with Joe and Ben, two more of my oldest friends from high school. Ben is currently backpacking and blogging his way through Southeast Asia, and kicked his trip off with Pi Mai, and Joe is just along for the ride for a week. Minutes after settling them into my house, I take them out on the streets for a Lao style welcome. What should be a 15 minute walk to my friends’ house nearby takes two hours, as all of the neighbors along the way pull us into their parties, for “just one” drink, or a taste of soup, or a dance with the middle-aged man wearing water balloon boobs, or ice down our shirts thanks to some mischievous children.
The third day starts at another neighborhood lunchtime party, but then Elle, Joe, Ben and I head to the Mekong to check out the Beerlao Music Zone, the official dance spot in town. It’s like a roadside celebration multiplied exponentially, with the hosts on stage constantly dousing the audience with water.
…And by Day 4 the city is quiet again. Discarded plastic bags, the remnants of countless water fights, litter the streets, but otherwise life has gone completely back to normal. The rules are back in place and society begins to function normally and politely once again. Until next year.