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The International Writers Magazine:Laos

Bpee Mai in Laos.
Thomas Phipps

Travelling down the Mekong for two days in a narrow wooden boat provides plenty of time to contemplate ones future; I instead listened to The Doors and imagined I was Captain Benjamin L. Willard on route to find Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.

For hours we saw no signs of civilization, just dense jungle on each side of the river. At one point we passed a young boy perched on top of an elephant and five minutes later we spotted his likely destination. The small riverside villages are made up of no more than ten timber houses raised up on stilts built on slopes that roll down to the slow flowing river. From the banks of the river or in small wooden canoes, young men cast nets; weighted at the bottom with stones and kept afloat at the top with old plastic drinks bottles. Now and again I’d see them bring them in; the sparse catch destined for that evening’s charcoal grills.

As evening neared on the first day, after seven hours on the river, we arrived at our stop for the night; Pak Beng. As soon as we disembarked, the heavens opened. I’m not sure whether it was the Pastis I’d managed to procure, the damp post-rain smell of the jungle or the fire-flies dotted about in the dusk sky, but I felt very content as I sat on the balcony of our hotel watching the last of the suns rays disappear over the misty hills that surround the one-street town.

The next morning we were back on the boat. Having exhausted my Doors collection I moved on to: The Rolling Stones, Cream, Bob Dylan and Love. All as a means of continuing to feed my Apocalypse Now fantasy. Lucy followed suit, but being far more cultured, instead read The Heart of Darkness. I should point out, that we were actually around 1000km upstream form where Captain Willard’s journey took place. Rather than heading from Vietnam into Cambodia we were heading through Laos to the World Heritage site; Luang Prabang.

Although it doesn’t feature in Apocalypse Now, Laos certainly wasn’t free from American interference during the 60’s and 70’s, in fact, quite the opposite. Determined to prevent North Vietnamese influence in Laos, and in particular to halt munitions from flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Eastern Laos, the US carried out the largest sustained aerial bombardment in history. Between 1964 and 1973: 580,344 missions were flown over Laos, 2 million tons of bombs dropped at a cost of $2.2million per day. Between 30 and 60 people a year are still killed as a result of the 40% of bombs which failed to detonate. What’s more, it was all in vain.

In 1975, Kaysone Phomvihane and his comrades emerged from the caves in Northern Laos, from where they had sheltered form the American bombardment, and took control creating the Laos Peoples’ Democratic Republic. Today, ‘the Party’ are still in power, however, recognizing the short-comings of the socialist experiment, they have opened up the country to allow private enterprise and foreign investment. Despite this, cronyism is still rife and it is party members and their families who are best placed to take advantage of the opportunities provided by free-market capitalism.

Fortunately the final track of Love’s Forever Changes coincided with our arrival in Luang Prabang. Tired, despite having been sat down all day, we grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to our hotel. Before turning out the lights I decided to peruse the government issued ‘Accommodating Regulation’. I was already aware of the first couple of rules; for example, rule 1 states that there is a 12:00am curfew, by which time tourists must be back at their hotel.

However, I was intrigued by rule number 5;
"Do not any drougs, cruambling or bring both women and man which is not your own husband or wife in the room for make love". Wondering where I could find "drougs and cruambling" and whether, if not both, it would be alright to bring one or the other into the room for make love.
I moved on to rule number 6.
"Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostitute into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction." With that in mind I drifted off to sleep.

As we left our hotel the next morning, I stopped to take in the beauty of the temple (wat) opposite; its brilliant red roof lit up by the morning sun. The street was quiet except for the sound of the birds and an old lady sweeping down the path outside her house. We set off towards the main part of town and then it happened…I was shot. He can’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old but he strode towards me with determination in his eyes and a slight grin on his face, took aim, and pulled the trigger.

In my confusion I didn’t notice the two girls creeping up behind me. However, before they had a chance to attack, there was a shout from across the street; "get down!" It was the two Californians we had met on the boat kitted out with the latest high velocity, rapid action water pistols. The girls turned round in shock with looks of awe on their faces as they noticed the weapons. The Americans opened fire and they scattered. "That was a close call buddy; now clear the god damn street."

So it began; ‘Bpee Mai, Laos New Year. Across Southeast Asia, in Thailand (Songkran) and Cambodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey) New Year celebrations were also beginning. The Buddhist New Year celebrations represent a process of renewal which is preceded by purification. This purification takes the form of dousing each other in water (hort nam) as a blessing. Although I was aware of this, I imagined it would be mostly confined to temples; perhaps only spilling on to the streets to a small extent. Not so, Monday 14th April marked the start of three days of all out water carnage. Running battles took place on the streets as truckloads of locals travelled round town, singing, banging drums and bouncing the vehicles on which they were crammed. Some were armed with ice-water and others with cornflower (the purifying properties of which I was unsure of). Every shop and house had hoses and buckets of water with which to reload water pistols. There were many casualties. My favourite were the old American couple who shouted at the locals to stay back in a vain attempt to stay dry; they were promptly attacked from all angles. Perhaps the sneakiest combatants were the novice monks who, upon spying a victim, would hide behind the high walls of their temple grounds before popping up and soaking the unsuspecting pedestrians below. Only members of ‘the party’ were protected from the water assault. Every so often a police car would speed through the streets, siren wailing, followed by two police motorcyclists blowing whistles, who in turn were followed by a ‘party’ 4x4 or limousine. The shouting would quieten and water pistols would drop to their owners’ sides until the motorcade had passed and then the carnival would resume.

The festivities didn’t revolve solely around water fights and drinking. The highlight of the festival is the nang sangkham parade, when the golden Prabang holy relic is transferred from the old palace to Vat May and back again a few days later. Despite the abundant alcohol I remained sober enough to look out for evidence of the changes that had taken place since 1975 when ‘the party’ came to power. It wasn’t particularly difficult to spot the absence of the king who, as in Thailand, was traditionally seen as the protector of Buddhism in Laos. In April 1976, the last king, Sisaveng Vatthara had been forced to abdicate and ‘donate’ his palace to the state. In March 1977, the ex-king, his wife and two sons disappeared. Having had such an important role in the parade, as well as the huge ‘cult of personality’ that surrounded him (as with Thailand), his absence from proceedings since 1975 must have been strongly felt. Even 33 years later, it seemed the largest amount of water was reserved for drenching the floats representing government departments and their achievements which, unlike the party members, were not immune. Although highlighting the simplification and secularisation of the New Year ritual process, the beauty parade was a particular highlight for me. Beautiful women had been selected form villages across the country to take part and were resplendent in traditional dress.

After three days, although exhausted, we still found time to indulge in some of the pleasures that have made Luang Prabang Wanderlust Magazine’s ‘City of 2008’; the first being the night market. Exceptionally good quality handicrafts are laid out on mats, illuminated by lanterns and on sale at very cheap prices. I was embarrassed to see some tourists haggling over a few pence. We bought a fair bit from the market and only bartered to the extent that we felt obliged. For me, the wonderful products represented a fantastic opportunity to inject money into the local economy. Another opportunity to do so was at the abundant restaurants. Unfortunately, many seemed to be French owned which, although diverted some money away from the locals, ensured that the food was exemplary. Luang Prabang is such a wonderful place, with French colonial buildings, golden wats and rivers on each side of the towns peninsula but eventually we had to leave.

We headed by bus down the once perilous route 13, which 10 years ago was patrolled by bandits who caused the UN to ban personnel from travelling. Now days the only danger seemed to be the lack of decent air conditioning winding roads. We spent 3 days in ‘backpackers paradise’ Vang Vieng where gap year students divide their time between gulping down mushroom milkshakes, watching Friends in one of ten bars constantly showing repeats or tubing down the river. We opted for tubing and it was a great deal of fun. However, after 3 days I was finding the abundance of ‘right-on’ 18 year olds a bit tiring and we headed to Vientiane. We then flew to Phnom Penh where I’m sat; ensconced in the Foreign Correspondents Club finishing these notes. I shan’t forget the people of Laos in a hurry or their relaxed, laidback manner. Practising Theravada Buddhism means that Laotian people strive to avoid conflict and stress; I would suggest that anyone wishing to do likewise visit their country.

©Thomas Phipps May 2008

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