Vang Vieng, Laos -- Considering a trip to Southeast Asia? Go to Luang Prabang for the Pii Mai celebrations. They're not to be missed.
I also suggest you find the best water gun you can, because those Laotian kids are masters of the art of water fighting.
Pii Mai is the Laotian water festival. We would call it New Year's.
The Lunar New Year starts in mid-April, when all of Laos shuts down and people celebrate in droves. When a local here in Vang Vieng, in central Laos, tells me the Pii Mai celebrations are best in Luang Prabang, I make my way north.
The bus, whose state of repair is suspect to say the least, winds around sharp corners through breathtakingly lush mountains.
Three hours later, I hop into a bemo, a small car with an open hatchback where passengers sit. Any number from one to as many as can fit, chickens included, is acceptable; the attitude of bemo drivers is "the more the merrier." Within seconds I notice a group of young boys waving at me. Eager to make friends, I enthusiastically wave back, only to have a bucket of water thrown at me.
It's at this point that I remember hearing something about water being involved in these festivities. I think to myself, "So this is the start of Pii Mai." Before I can make it to meet my friends, I'm drenched.
Just before the holiday, Laotians work incredibly hard to assure that all their debts from the past year are paid off, since carrying debts into the new year brings bad luck. Most families borrow money to pay them off, incurring new obligations in the new year, but as long as old debts are paid off the family can feel safe.
Pii Mai is also the time of the year when statues of the Buddha are cleansed with perfumed water. And the reason for all the water fights is to ensure that everyone is cleansed of all sins committed in the past year.
I soon find the market, where I buy a hot-pink water gun. If I'm going to be cleansed, you'd better believe I'm going to do some cleansing in return.
Excited kids and youths waiting at the side of the road, buckets filled, mark the beginning of the three-day celebration.
The highlight of the second day for me is the one-minute trip by boat to the small island, where kids run around soaking each other with water from the Mekong Delta.
While the young and agile prey on those less experienced in the fine art of water fighting, their elders watch, enjoying hawker food and a tasty Beer Laos. There's also a large tent where everyone dances to Laotian pop music, including the uncoordinated and inebriated, albeit enthusiastic, foreigners.
Things start early the next day. The whole city emerges at the crack of dawn or the crowing of the roosters to line the streets and put rice in the bowls of Buddhist monks. Later, tourists and locals watch as a massive gold statue of the Buddha is paraded through the city and Miss Luang Prabang waves to the crowd from atop a faux water buffalo. It's right about now that being soaked starts to feel normal.
When, the next day, I notice that the children are no longer outside with water-filled buckets, I realize that Pii Mai is over. I'm left feeling melancholy, sure that nothing in the rest of my trip will be as much pure fun.