Tag Archives: party

Boun Bang Fai, an Explosive Festival

After nearly three years in Laos, I’ve been to most of the major local festivals.  I’ve given alms at That Luang, tried paddling (but mostly cheering) a Dragonboat, respectfully tied baci strings for babies, at offices, and at weddings, thrown water like a champion at Lao New Year, and so on.  But the one festival I’ve been missing out on is boun bang fai, or the annual Rocket Festivals.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

These celebrations are harder to track down, because they don’t just happen on one day, but could occur any time between April-June, in the transitional period between the dry and the rainy seasons, and happen on different days in different villages.  Generally they occur more in the countryside, rather than in the city-proper (which is for the best for safety reasons), and are said to have a link to ancient fertility ceremonies, which makes sense with the scheduling to signify the coming of the rains, and the beginning of the rice-planting season.  In keeping with this theme, rocket festivals can often be a rather raunchy affair, with a fair amount of cross-dressing, drunkenness (okay, well, this is true of all Lao holidays), and phallic rockets or drawings.
picnic
After two years of talking about rocket festivals, I knew I had to finally  see what it was all about, so when a friend invited me and some of our other friends out to his family’s village in Ban Naxone, about a one hour drive from the city, I was ready to go.  After a body-numbing motorbike drive out to the village with my friend Ilse, we knew we had arrived when traffic in an otherwise quiet area drew to a standstill, and loud cowbell music began to resonate in the background.  We began just with a quiet lunch at our friend’s house, with the usual fare of papaya salad, small river clams, and beef with chili sauce, before venturing out to check out the scene.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

The Ban Naxone rocket festival seemed to be bigger and more official (and therefore less raunchy) than many other rocket festivals.  The currently dry rice fields were the site of a massive carnival, with stalls selling grilled meats, homemade slushees, Gangnam Style balloons, and tiny take-home rockets.  Families had picnics, and everyone flinched a bit when a rocket went off.  The rockets themselves are not exactly anything that would pass a safety inspection in the US.  These are PVC bottle rockets (homemade in the village) of varying sizes, from small (do-it-yourself) to big, to VERY big (saved for the grand finale, which we unfortunately missed).  The larger-sized ones are set off from a launching platform, and are lit by either brave or stupid men inevitably wearing flip flops, and hurtle in the air with an alarming sound that makes you want to hit the deck to save yourself.  The crowd shades their eyes as they smoke high into the air, and then begin their descent…to land wherever they might land.  It’s an entertaining festival, but one to be approached with caution.

A few heart-stopping rocket launches was enough for us, as we had to head back to Vientiane before it got too dark, but it was certainly a worthwhile spectacle.  Let the rainy season begin!

The launching platform.

The launching platform.

there she goes

What goes up, must come down.

What goes up, must come down.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

 

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Pi Mai Redux

Last month, the country shut down to celebrate the Lao holiday to end all holidays, Pi Mai Lao, or Lao New Year.  Time must be flying here, since I feel like I just celebrated the new year…but wait…I did!

Since last Lao New Year, I have actually celebrated 4 new years, so no wonder time seems to be passing so quickly!  Last April, my friends visited and we celebrated the Buddhist year 2555 with the classic Lao water festival celebrations, which I detailed culturally, and festivity-wise in previous posts.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

A girl's traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

A girl’s traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

Just when the year was starting to feel long, it was time for Hmong New Year in December, when I visited Phonsavane and Nonghet District in Xieng Khouang Province just in time for the colorful cultural parties.  With this week of feasting on plain rice and drinking lao lao out of gasoline containers barely behind me, it was suddenly time for the international New Year.

I rang in 2013 with my friends Elle (who was actually present for the 2555 celebration as well) and Ilse in Bangkok, with Mexican food, VWs-turned-bars, and a rooftop countdown that came a few minutes too late.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

A VW turned partymobile.

A VW turned partymobile.

Just when I thought I was done with new years for awhile, it was time for Chinese New Year/Tet and the Year of the Snake, and thanks to Vientiane’s large Vietnamese and Chinese population, storefronts hung lanterns and displayed red clothing, while drummers pounded out rhythms on the way to dragon shows with their teams.  I celebrated at a Lao-Vietnamese friend’s house with traditional table settings, incense and fireworks, and the less-traditional Pitbull soundtrack and Beerlao-induced dancing.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

And then…time for another Lao New Year!  Soon enough, a year had passed (or is it several years?) and last month we rang in the Buddhist Year 2556.  As it’s my third Lao New Year, and third Pi Mai blog post, I won’t bore with the details and description (look for that here and here).  Instead let these photos and your imagination take you to a sweltering saturated 3 days in which neons, florals, and Beerlao-yellow blend before your eyes, wigs, sunglasses, and caveman costumes get swapped from person to person, and there are no moments of silence.  By now, the city has long since cleaned up the water balloons and party debris, and I am waiting around for the next new year I can celebrate.  Any ideas?

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Safety first?

Safety first?

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

It's impossible to stay dry.

It’s impossible to stay dry.

 

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Pi Mai 2555

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.

Just another day.

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.

Pi Mai party decor at VC

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.


Day 1
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.

Day 2
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.

Day 3
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.

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Souk San Wan Kurt!

A birthday party abroad, for the third year in a row.


Homemade mango sticky rice, grills, kebabs–what more do you need for a delicious party?!

This year was a blend of new and old: some new friends, some old friends, a new house, but the same idea–fill a cooler with Beerlao, fire-up two Lao-style grills (basically half a metal drum with a grate on top) and a party will ensue.  In honor of the many theme parties past, my theme this year was simply “Accessories,” allowing for a motley collection of leftover hats, sunglasses, costume jewelry and bowties to be dusted off and see another party.

We take accessorizing very seriously.  These are only a handful of the night’s decorations.

Some guests were less happy about the theme than others.


Once again, I had not one, but two, amazing cakes: a work of art from a local bakery in the shape of a purple handbag sculpted from marzipan, and a delicious coconut cake.  With an impromptu living room dance party, about 30 friends who stopped by at various points in the night, and a plethora of silly headwear (berets, headlamps, ski hats, and more), it was yet another very happy birthday here in Vientiane.

This is a cake. Amazing.

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Happy Halloween!

Laos is a country familiar with ghosts.  From my conversations with friends and students over the past year, I’ve gotten the impression that nearly everyone, at least a tiny bit, believes in pii–in ghosts or spirits.  Naturally, some of those beliefs are more serious than others, but the concept of spirits existing all around us, both bad and good, is quite prevalent.  This is visible just walking down the street and taking in the wide array of “spirit houses” outside nearly every business or home: miniature buildings to appease the spirits of the place, with small offerings, from liquor, sticky rice, and bananas, to Pepsi and cookies.  Some are flashy, covered in mirrors, and neon paint, others modest and minimalistic.  But they’re always there.  For some, this is a tradition, perhaps less a literal belief than to promote general good luck, but still entrenched in the culture.

A sampling of spirit houses, from right to left: Bangkok, Vientiane, Bali.

And from the urban legends I’ve heard, the pii are all around me here.  On Halloween night, a Lao friend started recounting tales of all of the spirits in the surrounding area, from the “scariest ghost in Laos,” according to him–a little girl who eats live chickens (and sometimes children)–to which places in town have particularly high concentrations of spirits (for example, one area on a main road, where all of the ghosts of people who have died in traffic accidents congregate).  He spoke half as though he were recounting simple facts, and half as though he was just trying to freak us out.  “Do you really believe this?” I asked, after a story about a ghost over the bridge in Thailand.  He just shrugged and said, “Maybe.  Why not?”

So perhaps it makes sense that the Western tradition of Halloween is becoming quite popular.  In talking with Australian coworkers, I recently realized how American many of the traditions I associate with Halloween are.  Many asked, “Do you actually carve pumpkins every year?  And go trick or treating?”  A such, these traditions were an essential part of my first Halloween celebration with the new American Embassy scholarship program.  Two of my good friends are teaching and developing this brand-new two-year program, that teaches both English language and American cultural customs to underprivileged local high schoolers.  As the first of the American culture celebrations, the roof at Vientiane College was decked out in orange and black, the American ambassador was in attendance and 60 high school students carved greenish Lao pumpkins with scarily large knives.  A few of the other American teachers and I joined after class to help out (and mostly to feel nostalgic for childhood).  After jack-o-lanterns were aglow (with minimal loss of blood), we hid in various classrooms to jump out and scare “trick-or-treating” students before handing out candy.

Saturday night  was the main show, costume-wise.  Kongkhao, a favorite hangout among expats, was hosting a “dead celebrity”-themed Halloween party, so naturally, we had to go all out (the day my life ceases to involve sporadic necessity of costumes will be a sad one).  I was Audrey Hepburn, and was joined by a posse that included the likes of Albert Einstein, Amy Winehouse, Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and a very dead rockstar.

A peek into the classroom: YLPF1 students working on Halloween masks.

Pumpkins? Check. Costumes? Check.  Halloween should be over, right?  Because I can never let a celebration pass by without drawing it out as long as possible, this was not the case.  Halloween Monday was a party all over again.

Teacher--leave me alone and let me work on my mask!

I conveniently had both of my Young Learner’s classes on this day, which was a great excuse to let lesson plans slide and allow both my and my student’s excitement to join forces for some just-barely-under-control fun classes.  With my smallest children we made Halloween masks and then played a version of “Red Light, Green Light” that involved walking around like zombies (and turned out to be a surprisingly good listening exercise).  My older class sat around and told scary stories, most of which involved–that’s right–more pii sightings around their houses (and even Vientiane College!).

After the last gluesticks and scraps of colored paper were finally cleaned up (along with the vomit of an over-excited 8 year-old), I headed out with a few coworkers to some final Halloween festivities.  Though it was a Monday, bars, restaurants, and clubs across town had huge Halloween parties on.  After all, if you’re going to celebrate a foreign holiday, why celebrate it on the wrong day?  After visiting a few of fake-cobweb strewn venues in the city we ended this year’s holiday watching an elaborate costume fashion show with some of our awesome TAs at one of the city’s fancy clubs.  Now the costumes are back in the closet for the time being, but the seemingly endless stream of holidays that mark the fall term marches onward.  Next up: birthday, That Luang Festival, and (eventually) the rest of my stories from Australia.

This is an accurate depiction of how it feels every time I enter this class.

 

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Reminder: Big Brother Mouse Quiz Night

The much-anticipated trivia night for Big Brother Mouse is only 8 days away!  I’ve still got a lot of work to do to prepare–mostly getting people to register at this point–but am still very excited.  Don’t forget to email me to sign up if you’re in Vientiane…it’s going to be a fun night you don’t want to miss.  And if you’re far away, as many of you are, please don’t forget that you can still help out.  Thanks to all who have donated already.

Poster design by A. Godfrey, 2011.

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Picturing Pi Mai

Between the scanning and the original disposable camera, the quality isn’t excellent, but the colors and movement at least accurately portray the happy neon blur that is Pi Mai Lao in downtown Vientiane.

Taking a ride downtown with Sam--helmets required, of course.

Pulling over to get soaked at one of the many roadside parties.

Cruising past temples in the pickup truck.

Sprinkling water on the Buddha.

Alex recieving a bracelet from a monk.


Kids throwing plastic bags--duck!

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