Laos: I'm drenched, you little squirts

In Laos, children do what they're told, says Lucinda Labes. And at New Year they're told to soak their elders

I hear it before I feel it: a soft detonation, a bomb, and then the white powder flumps over my head. My eyes blink crazily. Through a white film, I see a boy raise a gun. I clutch the weapon at my side, lift it to my shoulder and take aim. Bang! Bang! The children collapse with laughter as water splatters their faces, dribbling lines through the pancake mix of flour and paint that cakes their cheeks. A few seconds later a flurry of flour bombs explodes above my head, the milky powder dusting my nose and eyelashes. A bucket is passed forward to the boy nearest to me on the cart and the women passing in front of me whoop and duck. I am drenched to the skin, gasping with laughter. Pii Mai in Luang Prabang is turning out to be much more fun than I had expected.

I hear it before I feel it: a soft detonation, a bomb, and then the white powder flumps over my head. My eyes blink crazily. Through a white film, I see a boy raise a gun. I clutch the weapon at my side, lift it to my shoulder and take aim. Bang! Bang! The children collapse with laughter as water splatters their faces, dribbling lines through the pancake mix of flour and paint that cakes their cheeks. A few seconds later a flurry of flour bombs explodes above my head, the milky powder dusting my nose and eyelashes. A bucket is passed forward to the boy nearest to me on the cart and the women passing in front of me whoop and duck. I am drenched to the skin, gasping with laughter. Pii Mai in Luang Prabang is turning out to be much more fun than I had expected.

Pii Mai is the foremost religious ceremony in the Lao calendar year. According to Chinese astrology, there are two days between the old and the new year when time stands still. In this temporal limbo the Lao people stop ageing and wash away their sins. You can witness New Year anywhere in Asia, but there can be no better place to see the festivities than in Luang Prabang. For in this town in northern Laos, the festival is celebrated much as it always has been. While the rest of Asia is modernising, buying up western goods and ideologies, Luang Prabang, isolated from the world by pot-holed roads and an impoverished government, has been left to itself. The result is a town that moves at its own pace: a pace that is dictated by the tides of the Nam Khan and Mekong and rivers it lies between, as well as the temples around which its heart beats.

At dawn, monks walk barefoot in the streets, begging bowls held aloft, ringing their bells for alms. In the evening, the crimson sun sets to the sound of temple gongs which resound across the forested valleys to the children playing below.

Pii Mai is the only time at which the town rouses itself from this tranquillity. Then people flood in from the surrounding mountains, among them Hmong and Mien. These tribespeople live in thatched huts and share the forests with rare beasts; Javanese two-horned rhinos, barking deer, clouded leopards. Lao is not so much a nation state as a mixture of different tribal groups, and the majority of the population still gets its protein from wild rather than farmed animals. At Pii Mai, Luang Prabang bulges at the seams to accommodate its visitors, many of whom sleep on the cool, stone floors of the temples. Foreigners are fortunate. In the poorest country in Asia, the tourist dollar goes a long way, and those with the means can choose between teak-terraced bungalows overlooking the Nam Khan, to stucco-fronted colonial villas on the Unesco-protected high street.

Like other visitors before me, I make assumptions about this festival. I expect serenity: incense wafting across the rivers, devout Buddhists muttering prayers. Instead, I find myself in an atmosphere of riotous carnival where tourists and locals alike are thrown into a heady, unstoppable waterfight.

This is no sport for softies. Children line the streets armed with water pistols: vast Uzis in pink and orange plastic with alternating barrels and extra-large ammo tanks. Behind them, their parents tug fresh buckets of water onto the street for refills. Others hire open-backed trucks to drive their children around town, so that they can slosh water onto passing motorcyclists. One man is knocked off his motorbike by the weight of water thrown at him. For children, Pii Mai is heaven: chucking buckets of water at unsuspecting adults is actively encouraged, symbolising, as it does, the spiritual spring clean that this festival is all about.

The celebrations have a time-worn chronology. On the first day, families stroll down to the shore of the Mekong, where narrow boats wait to take them to the other side of the river. Here they build stupas in the sand, garlanding them in flour and marigolds. Children carry birdcages to the water and release the trilling creatures to the sky. On the banks behind, young women sell green coconuts under awnings. They wear Lao traditional dress – a sarong woven in glittering threads, with a fresh white shirt, despite the children's flour and dye bombs. That night, the tide will wash away the stupas; this is a blessing, as each grain of sand is said to represent a separate sin.

The next day is the big event: the procession of the Pa Bang. This golden statue of the Buddha, given to the Lao King by the Khmer monarchy in the 15th century, is Luang Prabang's talisman and namesake. Every year, the Pa Bang is carried from the Royal Palace through the town, to be laid in a sacred monastery for a three-day cleansing ceremony. Icy water, sprayed down my back by a cheeky monk comes as a relief: April is the hottest time of year in Luang Prabang, with temperatures exceeding 40C. There are shouts, a trumpet, and the procession draws into sight.

The beauty queen, a maiden who has been chosen the night before from the local provinces, leads the way. Seated atop a giant painted elephant, she nods to the people below, her pretty dark hair coiled up in strings of golden beads. Behind her comes an army of younger girls, aspiring beauty queens all, who carry lollipop-coloured parasols and silver caskets studded with frangipani. Next come the monks, the most senior borne on orange litters. The procession weaves towards Wat Xieng Thong, a ravishing 16th-century monastery, where the monks alight to be anointed with water. This is the final blessing. The guardians of Luang Prabang have been cleansed again and the new year can begin.



The Facts



Getting there

West East Travel (0870-220 1001; www.westeasttravel.com) offers return flights to Vientiane with Thai Air from £590. For onward travel to Luang Prabang, fly with Lao Aviation from around £50 through Diethelm Travel (00 856 71 215 920) or take the 10-hour bus journey, about £6, from Talaat Laeng bus station on Setthathirath Road. Thai Airways (020-7491 7953; www.thaiairways.com) offers return flights from London to Luang Prabang, via Bangkok and Vientiane, for £870.20.

Being there

Thongbay Guest House, Ban Vieng May, Vat Sakem (00 856-20 519 010) offers Lao bungalows for £20 b&b. Villa Santi, Thanon Xieng Thong (00 856 71 212 267) is a hotel in a French-Lao colonial villa with doubles from £75.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice