Minutes after leaving the refuge of our hotel we were greeted by a group of young smiling kids shouting “Pi Mai Lao!” ( Happy Laos New Year!) proceeded by a bucket of water being thrown over us both. Drenched, we walked a few more paces before a similar incident took place with water guns this time. This was typical of our stay in the tiny capital of Laos, Vientiane (population only 200,000) during its New Year celebrations. To ring in the new year people shower each other with water and they take it very seriously. It is also based on a Buddhist calendar hence we were able to travel through time to the year 2550.
Not only is there plenty of water but the food was great too. Being an ex-French colonial capital the restaurants and café’s boasted a mouth-watering menu with a strong French influence. After downing a couple of G & T’s by the Mekong riverside we decided to indulge ourselves on the highly recommended Cote d’Azur restaurant. It is run by a large French chef and his petite Laos wife. They serve fine French cuisine, pizza’s for the backpackers and great selection of red wine. At home, it would be the type of establishment that would cause your wallet to disintegrate by merely walking through the door. However, the main courses here averaged €5. It was just a pity the intolerable backpacker clientele did not live up to the food.
For lunch, we soon became regulars in JoMa Cafe and the Scandinavian Bakery. JoMa served foot long French baguettes with your choice of filling. The Scandinavian offering a similar selection of fresh sandwiches and pastries. However, its staff really got into the spirit of New Year by hosing us both while seated outside. Alex cunningly got his revenge by throwing his glass of water over the girl much to the other staff’s delight.
This deserted capital by night simply exploded with water by day. Madness ensues. The street filled with pickups carrying gangs armed with water bombs, guns and buckets. The uniform Hawaiian shirts and straw hats. Passing a corner you see a slightly tipsy group dancing to blaring pop music with a water gun in hand completely saturated. Approaching a wat or temple is like entering a war zone. Bouncy castles and music is blaring beside the statues of Buddha. People paying their respects by throwing buckets of water on the statues. Water guns everywhere.
At one of the bigger temples, we got talking to a couple of young monks who explained it was a time of renewal and rebirth no matter if the year was good or bad you can celebrate at a new beginning. They wrapped bracelets around our wrists made from orange thread and blessed us with good luck, good health, and happiness. The positive energy exuding from the monks left me with a warm feeling.
The next night we went to Fathima Indian restaurant on the riverfront. They offered a vast selection of curries at a cheap price most courses being €1. The lady who runs this restaurant really reflects the nature of Laos people. As the restaurant is located in the height of the celebrations in the city she was busy from early in the morning serving tourists all day. It was around 10.30 when we were finishing up and a psychotic French man refused to pay the few dollars he owed. He then proceeded to be rude and obnoxious to both her and her young family. In response, she calmly showed the man the bill again. He stormed out without paying. Instead of getting annoyed she just laughed and turned around and sat down to help an ex-pat hippy improve his Laos language skills with a smile.