Water Warfare: Celebrating Songkran

Music blaring on every street corner, threatening to blow out huge speakers.  Glasses of beer and rice whisky clinking together in rapid succession.  Locals and tourists alike running down the street after one another with giant squirt guns aimed for a kill shot.  Truck beds filled over capacity with Laotians chucking buckets of water on pedestrians, jumping up and down to create a hydraulic effect.  This is just a small sense of Songkran, the water festival celebrated for three days to celebrate the New Year in Laos (and Thailand and Cambodia).

Songkran officially lasts for three days and started on a Sunday, but we saw many people warming up for the festivities a few days early.  On our drive back from Muang Sing to Luang Prabang, we were frequently doused by children perched on the side of the road.  It’s certainly not the safest thing to throw a bucket of water into the face of someone riding a motorbike, but damn does the water feel refreshing.

Knowing that the actual festival was going to be mayhem and wanting to be prepared to cause as much of that mayhem as possible, Martin and I splurged and bought two of the largest squirt guns for sale in the city.  I mean these things were beasts.  Just pointing them at children sometimes caused them to cringe in fear and run away.  The first day of the festival we set out to the main street and unloaded liter after liter of water into the faces of people of all ages.  We took more than our fair share of return fire.  If I could go back and tell 12 year old me that in 11 years I would get to drink in public and take part in a 3 day water gun fight, I think he’d be in heaven. 

After a while we switched our battleground and headed to the road along the river where our guest house was located.  You always have to defend your home turf.  And here’s where the party really started to get wild.  Around 3:00, you could see the effects of the alcohol, especially in the younger teenagers, as the festivities raged on.  A procession of trucks paraded by, and Martin and I hopped onto the back of one, jumping up and down and dousing those on foot and rival truckers alike.  A party tent was set up down the road and we danced underneath a raining sprinkler system.  At one point Harlem Shake came on and without thinking we were gesticulating wildly in the middle of the street.  After a minute, I came to my senses and was glad to see others had joined in and I wasn’t the only one pelvic thrusting with abandon at nobody in particular.    

The second day of Songkran was more of the same, great old fashioned fun.

The third day is more laid back, with much less water fighting and a parade through the main street of town.  We perched on a hill along the main street, using our high ground to snipe out unsuspecting children.  Almost every child had the same reaction to being hit in the face with the water.  First they angrily looked around to see their attacker.  Once they spotted us flashing our boyish smiles in challenge, they laughed and ran away.  The parade itself was pretty interesting, with many floats filled with monks and apprentices.  One huge procession of apprentice monks dressed as monkeys was particularly entertaining, as were the ladyboys dressed in extravagant costumes attempting to perform traditional dances.  Martial arts practitioners showed off their prowess with blunted weapons in a fighting dance that rekindled my childhood dream to learn to use a sword. 

Once the parade ended, we hit up our favorite local bar Utopia with its awesome outdoor atmosphere and then partied late into the night at Spicy, the local hostel where many friends we had made during the week were staying.  The next day it was time to bid farewell to Martin who headed up to China as I made my way to Thailand via Vang Vieng and Vientiane.  As always, it was hard to part ways with such an awesome friend who I had a great time traveling with.

A couple days later with an extended Thai tourist visa in hand, I left Laos in the rearview mirror and crossed into Thailand for a rendezvous with one of my favorite countries.