The cheeky little boys take aim, fill their water pistols and giggle as they shoot me, their mother hovering nearby. I raise my lovely pink and lime pistol and shoot back, the boys shriek as they run back to mum to refill.
We are waiting, the little boys and I, for the start of the procession in Luang Prabang that will signal the end of Pi Mai Lao – the three-day festival that sees out the old lunar New Year and brings in the new.
I watch the waiting monks, a train of orange that disappears as far as I can see down Sakkaline Road, patiently standing behind beautiful golden carriages. One carriage bears the most important cargo of all – an important Buddha image known as Prabang. On 14 April each year, a procession moves the Prabang from its usual home at the former Royal Palace to Vat Mai, where he stays until the bookend procession that we are witnessing.
Locals approach the monks, reverently washing their feet with cups of water. The procession starts off with a jerk, the orange tide of monks shuffling along behind. Now the water fight is on in earnest. It is all about cleansing away the old year and welcoming in the new, and as one of the locals says – everyone is fair game. Bring it on.
The sleepy town of Luang Prabang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, due to its history as the Royal Kingdom before Vientiane took over the role in 1545, its plethora of 33 historic temples and its French provincial architecture impossibly beguiling. This peninsular, cupped by gentle peaks, is at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, with long-tail boats and other craft constantly buzzing on the brown, soil rich waters.
Luxury on the Mekong
One of the newest boats on the Mekong is the Dok Keow. At 28 metres in length, the intricately-crafted riverboat carries ‘Luxury on the Mekong’ guests on a selection of tours. We choose the ‘Champagne Sunset River Cruise’, and head down river watching the passing parade of boats, entangled jungle and the odd buffalo on the shore. We pull into a sandbank mid river, which is set up with a table and chairs, sunbeds and a Bedouin-style tent complete with fairy lights. We sip champagne, nibble on delicious canapes and Lao dishes, while the blood-red sun disappears into a smoky sky, courtesy of a far-flung fire.
With a visit to an elephant sanctuary on the agenda, we wonder what we are getting ourselves into, but upon arriving at the Elephant Village Sanctuary and Resort any worries evaporate as we explore its clean, beautiful grounds that are indeed Shangri-La for 13 rescued elephants – and two babies.
There are information boards dotted around the property, an elephant hospital, an elephant museum where you can learn many interesting facts about our pachyderm friends, and a mahout training area. We are astounded by the beautiful views over the Nam Khan River, and watch below as a few elephants make their way downstream through the shallows, smiling riders on their backs.
I hop on my trusty steed, Mae Kham Koun, an elephant that was rescued from the logging industry thanks to donations from an Australian and a German back in 2011. The mahouts only steer using voice commands – pie pie means move forward – and feet, with no tools allowed. We cross the river and visit two beautiful elephant babies, before heading back to the camp where the howdahs are removed. From 1 September, the Sanctuary will not use howdahs at all – with all riders sitting on the elephants’ necks.
It is not as easy as it sounds. After a very undignified half climb/half hoist on to the elephant, I ride bareback into the river, thighs clamped as tightly as I can manage. My steed sinks to his haunches and showers me with water from his dancing trunk. I reward him with a good scrub with the coarse brush provided by the mahout. It is magical, unforgettable and I have a smile as wide as the river on my face.
Texting of a different kind
Laos is known for its beautiful textiles, markets overflowing with scarves for all occasions. Some of the finest come from Ock Pop Tok’s Living Crafts Centre, which sits on the bank overlooking the Mekong. A founding member of Fair Trade Laos, it’s good to know that when you buy a product from them the money goes back to the local communities and weavers all over the country. We learn about the process from go to whoa,including the natural products used to dye the silks. We then choose colours we wish to use and actually create some beautiful scarves rich in colour and tie dyed to our own designs.
To top it off, we enjoy a wonderful lunch in the Silk Road Café on site, tucking into traditional Laos dishes including delicious flavourful soups. Afterwards, we walk out onto the terrace for the mesmerising views over the brown river, which has rich green river weed growing on the sand banks laid bare due to the low river level. If time is tight and you don’t have time to visit the Centre, there are two Ock Pop Top shops in the main street.
There is certainly no shortage of scarves in the night market that springs up in the main street in record time in the fading light, selling some wonderful souvenirs ranging from exquisite pop up gift cards to beautiful bedspreads, jewellery and elephant slippers. The local’s food market held every morning is just as diverse, with farmers and growers coming into town to sell their beautiful fresh produce. We see sacks full of rice, plump fish, all kinds of vegetables, enough chillies to sink a ship, live eels and guinea pigs. There are also people cooking aromatic dishes, the exotic scents floating down the twisting laneways.
The food of Luang Prabang is one of the highlights, from the gourmet delights served under the mango tree at 3 Nagas, and at the Governor’s Grill at the magnificent UNESCO protected Sofitel Luang Prabang, to the very moreish pizzas cooked at Secret Pizza – a restaurant that is basically in a local’s backyard and is not quite as secret any more.
Perhaps it was that superb pizza that slowed my reflexes during the water fight the next day. After the solemnity of the parade, it is on like Donkey Kong when we dared to walk down the street. On both sides of the road there are people with hoses, inflatable pools filled to the brim, buckets, tubs and cups. The locals let us fill up but they don’t hold back when it comes to wetting anyone; even if you are riding a motorbike you are not immune.
It is one giant water fight from one end to the other, to a rather odd soundtrack of doof doof music that is seemingly the wrong genre for this timeless place.
The next morning, the laughter and splashes of yesterday still echo in the pre-dawn light as we take part in the giving of alms, waiting with tubs of rice that we pre-roll into balls. We glance down the misty street, locals sitting calmly, until we glimpse a conga line of saffron. We wait, reverently, as the tide of monks rolls in, padding silently by on sandalled feet, pausing only long enough to let us place the rice in the large container they carry.
It is a spiritual encounter that brings home once again the special nature of Luang Prabang, where culture, history and nature combine in a trilogy of treasures. •
Photography by Helen Hayes.
When to go
Pi Mai Lao runs from 14–16 April each year. Low season runs from April to November when it is very hot. The best time to go is from November to March.