As our minivan rounded a mountain pass, a gaggle of giggling teenagers appeared at the fringe of a thatched-roof village.
Hey, I thought, what’s with the buckets and the water guns?
I’d traveled to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to ring in the Lao New Year, but I had only a vague notion of how wet things were about to get.
Spring new year’s festivals are held across Asia, and in Laos the most famous one occurs every April in Luang Prabang, the ancient town on the Mekong River that UNESCO recognized as a World Heritage site in 1995 for its charming blend of local and European architecture. I’d heard from fellow expatriates in Vietnam, where I live, that Luang Prabang’s new year’s bash was not to be missed.
Now, as our minivan approached the town’s glittering Buddhist temples on a hot April afternoon, I saw sagging pickups shuttling revelers around and blasting bass-heavy Laotian pop music. People danced and shimmied through the streets, throwing colored powder and splashing one another with all types of water weapons. It was a far cry from the image that many Americans no doubt have of Laos, a poor Southeast Asian country ravaged by U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War.
Our minivan stopped in a traffic jam beside what is normally a sleepy riverside promenade. The lighthearted mayhem pulsing outside our windows suggested a hybrid of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, and a tailgate party outside a college football stadium.
Historically, people have poured water during Lao New Year as a gesture of purification and renewal. Apparently the foreign and domestic tourists who had descended on Luang Prabang for this three-day event were planning to study that cultural heritage — the water part, at least — in great detail.
Splash, squish, splosh! The air was hot and dry, but the pavement was drenched, with green and white powder hovering over the dancers in miniature clouds.
“Eep!” squeaked my friend Erin Armstrong, who hails from greater Memphis, as we raced through a water fight toward the nearest guesthouse. “Yikes!”
That evening, we wrapped our cameras in plastic bags and hit the streets surreptitiously, trying to stay dry. But water snipers were waiting in every cobblestone alley, and soon we were soaked to the bone, caked in colorful powder and laughing like children.
“The energy here is contagious,” said Deanna Reynolds, a 27-year-old English teacher from Michigan, as we stood on the sidelines of a water fight. She hadn’t realized that her vacation in Laos would coincide with its biggest party, but upon arrival she had purchased a yellow water pistol with a shoulder-mounted storage tank in the shape of an elephant.
“What’s with the gun?” I asked.
Reynolds flashed a sly grin.
“I need to be armed!”
Scholars say that Lao New Year is probably rooted in 14th-century rituals in which people poured water on the Phra Bang, a famous statue of Buddha, in a ceremony that was said to assure the coming of the rainy season and affirm Buddha’s authority. But it’s difficult to define religion in Laos; although the dominant faith is Theravada Buddhism — a branch of the Buddhist faith that spread over centuries from India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and other countries — scholars say that many Laotians also worship supernatural entities known as “spirit cults.”
Another challenge is defining where Buddhism ends and the Laotian state begins. The landlocked country gained independence from French colonial rule in 1954 and has been governed by the Laotian Communist Party since a 1975 revolution. According to John Clifford Holt, a professor of religion and Asian studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, Laotian communists have officially embraced Buddhism and spirit cults but have also attempted to manipulate the Buddhist Sangha, or monastic order, and to limit the spirit cults’ influence.
One thing is clear: The Lao New Year festival has changed considerably in recent decades. In his 2009 book, “Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture,” Holt laments that although in centuries past Lao New Year rituals were probably celebrated with “high sacrality and sobriety,” the event has lately assumed a “carnival atmosphere of lighthearted licensed anarchy.” When Holt attended the 2007 Lao New Year festival in Luang Prabang, he writes, the quantity of water thrown “was rivaled only by the amount of Beer Lao consumed.”
But Lao New Year is also good clean fun. On the second day of the festival, I watched a colorful procession of parade floats flanked by dancers, musicians and monks. The crowd was merry, and although many spectators were drinking beer and shooting water guns, I didn’t observe a drop of ill will. The spectacle seemed, if not exactly sacred, then at least no less wholesome than a Fourth of July blowout.
Lao New Year, or Pi Mai in the Laotian language, is also an occasion for family gatherings. Erin and I found that out when some Laotians I met invited us to a house party on the outskirts of Luang Prabang.
In the garden, plates of traditional foods covered the picnic table, and we were encouraged — practically forced — to scarf sticky rice and laap, a spicy dish of mint leaves, chili peppers and shredded meat or fish. I noticed that most of the guests’ wrists were adorned with the delicate white strings traditionally exchanged at the basi, a ceremony thought to restore health and well-being that’s held at weddings, homecomings and other landmark events.
After entering the house, we sat cross-legged on the floor and accepted glasses of Beerlao, the partly state-owned brew that Laotians regularly guzzle at home and in restaurants. Soon we were toasting with Pa, a 72-year-old man, as elderly women boogied to the Laotian dance music rattling through black subwoofers.
Where were we from, Pa asked me over the racket, and what is the New Year’s holiday like in our country?
Different, I said. I’d spent my Western New Year’s Nordic skiing in Vermont.
Feeling partied out and moderately hung over, Erin and I pedaled out of Luang Prabang on rented bicycles, hoping to spend a few quiet hours in the surrounding countryside.
The road turned to dirt and wound past tropical foliage and corrugated roofs. A few miles on, we stopped near the entrance to a Buddhist temple and walked our bikes to a bluff overlooking the Mekong.
For a moment we stood silently, listening to the river’s current and gazing at a cloudless sky. Then we strolled into the temple courtyard and inspected a free-standing apparatus that looked a bit like a storm drain. A knee-high gilded Buddha sat beneath it, suggesting that the chute was a device for pouring ceremonial water on the Buddha’s head.
The teenage monks who were sitting nearby smiled at us encouragingly, so we unscrewed our bottles of mineral water, tipped them into the chute and watched as drops fell gently, one by one, upon the gilded recipient. The monks kept smiling, which I took as a good sign. I’m not religious, but it was satisfying to connect with their tradition, if only in a tiny way.
In town the next morning, I joined a crowd of perhaps 300 to watch monks and Laotian officials carry the Phra Bang Buddha statue to an outdoor podium for a ceremonial washing, a.k.a. “lustration.” This and other washings are meant to restore the statue’s magical properties and officially mark the beginning of the next Lao year.
“Look,” said my friend Khamon Phengsakhone, a student at a local university whom I’d befriended on a previous trip to the area. “The Buddha’s having a shower.”
Buddha might have been the only one. In the course of Luang Prabang’s three-day New Year’s bash, getting anything out of the faucets and spigots in my guesthouse bathroom had been hit-or-miss. Now, although I’d been caught in the crossfire of a dozen water fights, white and green powder was firmly caked into my hair and beneath my fingernails. In photographs from that day, I look vaguely like a circus performer.
Khamon and I walked to a French-style cafe and ordered breakfast. The town was quieting down at last, and our croissants tasted Parisian. But the restroom was bolted shut, with a sign on the door saying — as if we couldn’t guess — “No Water.”
Ives is a writer based in Hanoi.