The presence of squirt guns should’ve been an obvious tell that things were about to get weird. That, and the word-of-mouth advice to keep our valuables in plastic bags. But as 23-year-old teachers on leave from our jobs in Saigon, we weren’t exactly in the business of taking heed. I was on the Banana Pancake Trail with three buddies from college, and we were eager to eat up—or in this case soak up—any experience that came our way, research be damned. It was the kind of semi-reckless and free-floating travel that can only occur in that all-too-brief window after youthful autonomy is attained but before real responsibility sets in. We traveled in the manner of tumbleweeds, and it just so happened we blew into Savannakhet on the eve of “Pi My”, the Laotian New Year.
At first, the sleepy French colonial city of Savannakhet didn’t seem like the most stimulating place for a celebration. After months spent in the aspirational hive of Vietnam’s most bustling city, Lao, it was clear, had a considerably different vibe. The phrase we’d heard most since arriving was, “Baw pen nyang,” which translates to, “It’s nothing,” or more colloquially, “No worries.” As with all regional phrases it wasn’t just the saying but the delivery that truly conveyed the meaning. The person saying it was never in anything that resembled a rush, let alone a hurry, or even a mild scramble. Lao was a refreshing change of pace, we just weren’t sure there would be enough of a pace to sustain our interest. We needn’t have worried.
The Lao New Year is a three-day festival in which water plays a central role. The first day is when people tie a bow on the year that was by cleansing and preparing for the year to come. The second day is neither part of the old year or the new year, resulting in a freebie day of rest, joy, and water purification. On the third day people start the year off proper, making offerings at the temple and visiting family. Knowing none of this, we simply put our money in plastic bags, bought squirt guns, and looked to carry on with our unspoken plan to sample all the beers of Southeast Asia.
The first day of the New Year resulted in a few impromptu squirt gun fights and an unexpected spike in local energy. There was a buzz in the air, but as a traveler one is never sure if such sudden zeal is a return to the status quo or an infusion of rarefied air. We carried on with our comprehensive beer study at the Rose Bar, a club where my friend Michael insisted on the DJ pausing the raucous dance music so he could sing “Take Me to Your Heart.” During an instrumental lull he raised his fist to the confused and titillated locals and shouted “Lao!”
Thanks to our pleasantly surprising evening we missed our 9 AM bus out of town. The prevailing sentiment was that missing the bus was a small price to pay for a decent celebration. Little did we know it had only just begun. The upshot of being hopelessly naive is that once in a while a perfect alignment of events will create the impression that one is on a conveyor belt of consistently rising action. It’s the equivalent of hitting the travel lottery.
On day two, the “day of no day”, my friend Taylor and I ventured out to breakfast and never really returned. Pockets of people lined the streets with hoses, buckets, and squirt guns, and all stereos seemed to be on full blast, despite the mid-morning hour. Many people were wearing face paint, colorful masks, or were dressed alike in monochrome gangs. These gangs accosted anyone who happened to walk by with water and beer. The water was for splashing. The beer was for celebrating. You couldn’t venture more than a dozen yards before someone dressed in all blue or pink would run up and excitedly ask, “Can you drink!?” before dumping a pitcher of beer down your throat. Within minutes we were soaked and on the way to being soused, for research purposes of course.
The prevailing rule of the day seemed to be squirt or be squirted. We stopped in front of the Rose Bar and established a base of backpackers. The flatbeds of pick-ups were loaded with dancing revelers getting doused with water and baby powder as they paraded up and down the main drag. In less than 48 hours the city had shifted from sleepy backwater to raging party, and we couldn’t have felt luckier or more welcomed. My friend Hunter showed up around noon sporting a fresh mustache, a Hawaiian shirt, and gold aviators. Within moments he was lifted onto the back of a flatbed, sucked into the celebration, and sentenced to an afternoon of parading the strip with a band of locals.
As a backpacker one is seeking the defining experiences that will shape them, and sometimes this means forcing the issue. On the Banana Pancake Trail we’d spent many an evening staying out too late, or trying too hard to manufacture memories, more often than not leading to forgettable shenanigans. And observing the behavior of others on the trail, it was clear we weren’t alone in this pursuit, and at worst minor offenders. Authenticity was always the goal, but local economies shifted to suit the desires of the authentic Western seeker, hence the ubiquitous banana pancakes, the full moon parties, and the spiritual ceremonies performed for paying audiences. Yet on Pi My Lao we simply happened to be there when the going got good, and we were able to surrender to the joy of the day as participants rather than as instigators. This distinction made all the difference.
Taylor and I began to go on raids, attacking a gang with our squirt guns, receiving return fire, being beckoned to drink whatever was on hand, whether it was local wine, beer, or whiskey, and being sent on our merry way. The only break in the action occurred when an official procession rolled by. Everyone halted, dripping, and patiently watched a band march through along with Lao women in traditional dress, ringed by a coterie of guards carrying AK-47s. The last guard in the line-up sauntered along officially, and received a cheek full of baby powder as the party carried on behind him. Under his dignified mein a wry smile appeared. Baw pen nyang.
By late afternoon I was more saturated than I’d ever been in my life, the streets full of water, the celebration in full swing. Taylor and I realized we were starving and found a sandwich stall. For some reason the sandwiches were cartoonishly large and spicy, and there we sat on the curb, our legs ankle deep in run-off, our fingers pruned, chewing and belching. We returned to the guesthouse and passed out on our cots just as a vicious thunderstorm rolled through, effectively ending the party.
I woke up with heartburn, fingers that could barely close, and impossibly sore wrist tendons from all the pumping of the squirt gun. The soreness would fade, though in some ways the heartburn never did. As I wrote in my journal the next day, “The heartstab of nostalgia does not hit you until much later, upon remembrance.” It hits me now as I write this. I’ll never again be 23 and as immersed, untethered, and jubilant as I was on that day in Lao. Rising action always leads to a climax and falling action. How fortunate we are to experience such ecstatic peaks. The words my friend Michael had sung to the Rose Bar audience had proved prophetic: Lao took us to its heart.