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Lazy Days and Pi Mai Laos

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. OK, it’s only April, but it sure feels like lazy summertime days. This is the hottest time of year in Laos, with temperatures regularly near the hundred degree mark (38 C.) Tomorrow it’s supposed to be 104 degrees. The monsoon season is in June, July and August, so the temperature doesn’t normally get as hot as in April and May, since the wet weather has a bit of a cooling effect.

Our school is on break until May 10th, so I’ve been hanging out at the house during the day. In the afternoon, it certainly feels like the song, Summertime, suggests. I’m about 500 feet from the main road that runs into Vientiane, so the traffic noise is somewhat muted. In the afternoon, everything is very quiet: the neighbors’ kids are in school, the grown-ups, most of them, are at work and the only thing you can hear is the buzzing of flies. Obviously, I keep a fan blowing. (No air-con) I mostly lie down and read a book and take a nap. Very peaceful and pleasant (despite the heat). Until today, that is. Today, April 13th marks the start of the traditional Laos New Year, Pi Mai Lao (Pee-my). There will be plenty of noisy parties going on, with extremely loud music playing into the early hours. Goodbye relaxation time for several days.

The holiday is also celebrated in Thailand, where it’s called Songkran, and in Cambodia, Myanmar and some other parts of Southeast Asia. Traditionally, the holiday runs from April 13-15, but the Lao government, not content with a three-day weekend, has dictated that, because the 14th and 15th is Saturday and Sunday, Pi Mai will also include Monday and Tuesday. So, it’s a five-day weekend.

Probably the biggest feature of the event is the inclusion of water. By this, I mean the traditional activity of cleaning house and also of pouring a bit of water over the various Buddha statues in the local temple as part of a purification rite. But, the main focus in many parts of Laos, and in Thailand, is throwing water on other people, drenching foreigners and natives alike in large-scale water fights, especially in the cities. I’m going out to my former village today, where the celebration is a bit gentler. I’ve posted about Pi Mai before, here, here and here.

I’ll take plenty of photos and get them posted as soon as I can. Gotta wrap my camera and cell phone up in plastic grocery bags before I head out on the main road, where I’ll try to avoid water-throwing kids. I can probably avoid getting too wet there, but when I get to the dirt road going to the village, I’ll have to slow down and it’s very possible I’ll get soaked before I get to where I’m going. So, I’m going to wear some light, drip-dry clothing and hope the heat and the sun will dry me quickly. Just part of the deal, I guess, but it’s all in fun. I’ll get my licks in at Nai’s family’s party. More later.

Wonder what I’ll look like during this year’s celebration. This is from last year.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Well, that finishes this year’s Pi Mai Lao celebration. One more photo to show. Here are a few friends posing for the camera. Nai’s on the left and a friend, name unknown, is on the right, but who’s the old fart in the middle? Got his face and clothes powdered, I see. He looks fairly full from eating all that fish and rice. Guess he had a good time. See ya next year, sport.

Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

Today is the annual Boat Racing Festival in Vientiane. Too bad I won’t be attending. While virtually every other institution, (schools, government offices, banks, embassies, as well as restaurants and other businesses) is shut down, our school, Vientiane College, has decided, as usual, to remain open.

I really enjoy going to boat races in Laos, but I’m not going today because I have to work later. Although my lesson plans for this evening’s classes have been made, I’m not going down to the race area to enjoy a few hours of the races. It’s sunny and warm today, so I’d just end up getting sweaty and smelly, and, then, I’d have to motorbike back to the house, take a shower and get back to school. Not worth it. I really like spending the whole day at a race, not having to worry about being somewhere else later.

The school always gives some flimsy excuse for not being shut down. There was a post on the notice board advising teachers to tell students that the school is not being culturally insensitive or unaware, but the reason for remaining open is that authorities don’t give the school enough advance notice as to when the race will be held. That’s pure hogwash! We received the 2018 school calendar a few weeks ago and it shows that the boat race next year is on October 25th, which, fortuitously, coincides with the beginning of the mid-term break next October. That’s more than a year away. Not enough advance notice? Bull crap. If any of my students who show up tonight ask why we’re open, I’ll just tell them to ask the school administration. I’m sure as hell not going to give them the school’s excuse of “not enough advance notice.”

Now, having said that, the school is still, usually, a great place to work. It just gets under my skin (and is depressing) that we’re one of the very few institutions that are open today, and that the school, since I’ve been here, has never closed for this particular holiday. Ah, well, next year, I guess.

It’s Time For Pi Mai Lao 2017

The end of the first term of 2017 is near–this coming Saturday, in fact. So, I’m free from April 9th to May 5th, the start of the next term. What to do, what to do? Next week is easy–it’s Pi Mai Lao or Lao New Year, the biggest Lao holiday of all. It’s a five-day affair this year because of the weekend, so the official date of the holiday is April 13th through the 17th. I’ve posted about it before here, and here, with some videos on this post. In Thailand it’s called Songkran, the Water Festival.

In both countries, devout Buddhists visit the temples, clean their houses and honor their elders. That’s the traditional part. Then there’s the water-throwing aspect. Most of the young people and many older people toss water on their friends and on strangers, along with flour, and smear faces with soot from smoke-stained pots, all in good fun. But, it can get out of hand, with people using super-soaker squirt guns or small buckets to soak friends and passers-by alike. It’s not too bad out in the countryside, where the population seems a bit more conservative than in the larger cities. In Vientiane and Bangkok and in other metro areas, it’s like a small war. The danger is in throwing water at motorbike riders and causing them to have an accident. There’s also the usual carnage on the roads caused by drunk driving, but it’s multiplied at this time of year because of all the parties. (As if Lao people needed a reason to have a party.) Below are a few photos from a couple of years back.

Khoon and powdered face

Khoon, Seo’s husband, has been out running around the village, meeting friends, drinking beer, and getting his face coated with baby powder, another Pi Mai Lao tradition.

Nai powder face

Nai after his face has been powdered, one of the rituals of Pi Mai. Sometimes lipstick and soot from the bottom of pans is also applied.

Suwon and friend

Suwon and friend, the lady who grilled most of the food. Suwon’s quite a camera hound, so she’s in lots of the photos.

Suwon and Noh

Suwon and Noh enjoy a real soaking.

Thankfully, I won’t be riding my motorbike back and forth to work because of our time off, but I still have to be more than extra careful because the partying starts well in advance of the official holiday. But, I have only a few more days of riding until I’ll put the bike away, mostly, until after the holidays. I’ll visit some friends on a few of the days and celebrate the New Year with them. They’re within walking distance!

So, that’s next week’s plan. After that, I’m moving into a different house. It seems that the guy we’re renting from has given us until the first of May to move out because he wants to move back in. He’s going to refund May and June’s rent money to me. Fair enough. I’ve already put a down payment of 50% for six months’ rent on another place, one that’s in a much more favorable location. Nai and I are going to start moving in around April 20th or so. We’re both sick and tired of our current house, so we think the fellow is actually doing us a favor by moving back in. When the time comes, I’ll have a longer post about why my current residence, which I used to think was wonderful, is less than optimal and about why the new house is much more to my liking. More later.

Pi Mai Lao Holiday

Just a few photos from the recent Laos New Year (Pi Mai Lao), a holiday called Songkran in Thailand, where there are huge waterfights to mark the three-day event. Here in the village, the water throwing was much more subdued than elsewhere. Most people ask first if they can pour cold water down your back in a ritual cleansing, so to speak. It can get a bit out of hand, with water being slung about to include any bystanders, but it’s nothing like in Bangkok or even Vientiane, where there were some large-scale water fights on the main streets.

It’s also a religious celebration, where Buddhists go to their local temple and cleanse the Buddha statues, and it’s a time for house cleaning. Most people will do a thorough cleaning of their homes, sweeping, mopping, dusting and even a bit of painting to spruce the place up.

There were a few parties at Nai’s family compound, just a five-minute walk from where we live. Lots of food, beer and loud music (too loud). And fun.

P.S. I’m just now getting this posted due to a couple of factors. First, I couldn’t get any posting done at the farm because of the extremely crappy internet connection. Finally, the new school term started, so I can make use of the school internet, which is mostly…hmmm, just OK, I suppose, but it works. However, I’m teaching on a full-time basis this term, six days a week, so I’ve been quite busy at the start. I’m finally up to par on everything, so I’m able to get this up today. Enjoy. More later.

Seo, Nai's niece

Nai’s niece, Seo (pronounced, approximately, Saw) tends to some grilled duck. She and her husband, Khoon, live not too far from Vientiane.

Grilled duck

The duck’s grilling and it’s just the start of all the food that’ll be eaten today.

Squid, ready to grill.

Squid, cut up and almost ready to grill over an open fire. I don’t much care for it, so I’ll wait for the grilled fish.

Squid in chili sauce

Now it’s ready to grill, after marinating in a spicy chili sauce for a few minutes. Too hot for my taste buds.

Grilling the squid.

Nai takes charge of grilling the squid. He’ll end up eating the most, since he loves it.

Cut up squid.

It’s finally been grilled and cut into pieces. Ready to eat!

Awl eats squid.

Nai’s sister, Awl, enjoys some of the squid. She’d better get her share before Nai starts digging in.

Shredding papaya for salad.

One of Nai’s numerous cousins shreds raw papaya in preparation for making another staple, papaya salad.

Preparing the papaya salad.

Nai prepares the extremely spicy hot fixings that the papaya goes into. The mixture includes very hot chili peppers (the more, the better), tomatoes, lime juice and a fermented fish paste, which looks just awful. This concoction, when mixed with the papaya , is extremely hot, much too fiery for me. I nibble a little, but I soon rush to find some cold water. Whew!

Mixing the papaya salad.

Here, Nai uses a mortar and pestle to mix all the ingredients together. Next stop, mouth.

Eating papaya salad.

And, finally, everyone (except me) enjoys the papaya salad. I don’t know how they can eat something this hot and be so nonchalant about it. I guess it comes from a lifetime of eating it. Bon apetite.

Grilled fish

Now this is more like it. I love this fresh fish from the Mekong, grilled over a charcoal flame and stuffed with a few herbs. Simply delicious. These cost about 25,000 kips each, around $3.

Guay and blood soup

Nai’s brother, Guay, enjoys a couple of beers with some duck blood soup, kind of a staple (both beer and soup) on Pi Mai Lao.

Khoon and powdered face

Khoon, Seo’s husband, has been out running around the village, meeting friends, drinking beer, and getting his face coated with baby powder, another Pi Mai Lao tradition.

Kids in a wading pool.

It’s been very hot lately, so what better way for the kids to cool off than to hop in a small wading pool. The boy in front on the left is Leo, Nai’s two-year old nephew. Whenever he sees me taking photos, he makes this little square with his hands, which represents the camera, I suppose. He’s quite a ham. To his left is Guay’s daughter, Muoy. I’m not sure who the boy is in the back, just that it’s another one of the cousins.

Washing mother's feet

This is Pang showing obeisance to her mother, Awl, by washing her feet at the end of the day. When she finished the washing, she bowed down and placed her mother’s feet on the top of her head to show further respect. She did the same for her father’s feet.

Awl and Gaith

Gaith, Pang’s father, and Awl enjoying the end of the day. I think the look on Gaith’s face was caused by little Leo, his grandson, pouring some ice water down his pants.

Mother and father enjoy a happy moment.

Gaith and Awl enjoy a happy moment. I love Awl’s smile.

Family pose.

Gaith, Pang and Awl pose for a photo. The end of a long day for everyone. Bedtime.

Laos New Year

Next week, folks here in Laos (and in Thailand) will celebrate the traditional New Year. I’ve posted about the event a few times before, most notably here, with lots of photos. The holiday is known as Pi Mai Lao here, and Songkran in Thailand. Thailand’s celebration, especially in Bangkok, is renowned for its huge water fights, but it’s a bit more sedate out in our rural area in Laos.

This year, the authorities have designated Tuesday, the 12th, as part of the holiday, and the official celebration takes place the 13th through the 15th. That’s Wednesday through Friday, so there’s the weekend, too. All told, the holiday lasts 6 days. But, when you include this coming weekend, some people who are lucky enough to get Monday off could have a 9-day holiday. Impressive!

The parties have started already, though. The neighbors had a big blowout yesterday while I was working. I noticed three cases of empty Beer Lao bottles stacked on their patio this morning, so I asked Nai if they’d had a party. Yes, they had. Why now? The new year isn’t until next week. They started early. And so many other people, too. I’ll have to take extra care in riding the motorbike home tonight, Friday, since a lot of people will be out, many of them drunk. The traffic has been horrendous the past few days, and today at lunch time, when I came to the school, it was as bad as I’ve ever seen it. Wish me luck in getting safely home tonight.

Tomorrow is the last day for classes this term, and we have a nice break until we start up again on May 5th. I’ll be out with my camera next week, taking photos and videos of Pi Mai Lao. More next week, then.

Bits and Pieces

Festival Time in Laos

Along with the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival (see previous post), there have been a few other celebrations recently.

Just after the boat race, from Nov.23rd through the 25th, was the That Luang Festival, which honors Laos’ national symbol. Below is a night photo of That Luang (not my photo).

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

Next was the huge Laos National Day on Dec. 2nd, kind of like the U.S.’s Fourth of July. This year marked the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (Why is it that whenever you see an official country name that includes “People” or “Democratic Republic” it almost always seems to be a dictatorship or a Communist country? It’s neither democratic nor does it belong to the people. If the U.S. were named the “People’s Democratic Republic of the United States of America,” don’t you think it would be a completely authoritarian government? /end of opinion)

There was an enormous parade at the That Luang esplanade that involved 15,000 people from 45 different government and private sectors. The Vientiane Times reported that “National Day is a landmark date to reflect on the history of Laos and the ethnic Lao people fighting bravely against foreign colonialists and imperialists to protect their territory and bring independence and freedom to the Lao people.” (emphasis mine-who do you think they might be referring to?)

Along with all the parades and celebrations of National Day, Vientiane city or the Laos government decorated some of the main avenues with beautiful lights in the trees and along government ministry buildings. The lighting is a pale bluish-white color and it resembles Christmas tree lights. Riding my motorbike along the main avenue, Lane Xang (lahn zahng), is like riding in a winter wonderland. Well, except for the fact that there is no snow to enhance the scene, though it’s still beautiful. I hope they keep the lights up until after the New Year holiday.

Laos, a mainly Buddhist country, doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, but New Year’s Eve and Day are celebrated, with January 1st being a national holiday.

A Beautiful Automobile

I was cruising down the main road along the Mekong last week when I spotted a gorgeous blue and white automobile. I couldn’t take a photo of it (ain’t gonna try that while riding a motorbike), but as I got closer I saw that it was a Rolls Royce. Later, I looked on the internet and found that it was probably a Rolls Wraith. Here’s a photo from the ‘net that looks exactly like the automobile that I saw. (I dare not call it a “car.” That seems like the wrong description of this beauty. “Automobile” sounds classier, and I suppose I could also call it a “motor vehicle.”) As I rode alongside it (it was parked), I told myself “Don’t scratch it. Don’t hit it. Don’t even breath on it.”

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Down to Bangkok

The school term finishes in a few days, so Nai and I are travelling down to Bangkok for several days on the 22nd of this month. We’re going to take the overnight train from Nong Khai and are staying in a mid-priced hotel in the Silom section of the city, withing easy walking distance of the Sky Train and Underground system. Hope to have some fun, but have to be careful with the money. I don’t get paid again until January 29th. (An exception to spending too much is in the next section of this post, below.)

The Cosmos Beckons

With the beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, the clear night skies have reawakened my interest in astronomy, one of my main hobbies when I lived in the ‘States. However, I don’t have a good pair of binoculars to satisfy my star gazing hunger. So, while I’m in Bangkok, I’m going to see if I can’t find a pair of binocs or perhaps even a small telescope. I know of a couple respectable places in Bangkok to go shopping. I want a pair of Nikon 7x50s or a pair of Celestron 15x70s or 20x80s. They’re all relatively cheap, so any of the three would be nice. A good 4 or 5 inch ‘scope would do nicely also, but I’ll probably have to stick with the binocs, unless I can find a good price on a telescope.

A Laos 4th of July

Nai’s sister, Nui, sells a little food at the Old Place, usually grilled slabs of squid, Lao meatballs and hot dogs. Now, hot dogs in Laos are not like hot dogs in the U.S. They’re smaller and not that tasty. If you go to a Laos restaurant and order breakfast, you’ll see bacon, ham and sausage on the menu. The bacon’s OK, but the “ham” is that processed crap that’s not really ham, and the “sausage” is merely a hot dog. I can’t stand the hot dogs here (or in the ‘States, for that matter), but Nui has been selling a variation of the standard ‘dog. It’s more like a sausage, and a few herbs and spices are mixed in.

So, for the 4th, we invited a few friends over for Beer Lao, squid, papaya salad and hot dogs. I’d had to work that morning, and afterwards I browsed a few of the local western markets, looking for hot dog buns, relish and, maybe, chili.

The markets had the buns, but I’d eaten these particular ones before, and they’re more like a sweet pastry, so I substituted hamburger buns. I couldn’t find any relish or chili, though I’d seen them before, so I settled for plain old mustard and ketchup.

Back at the New Place, then, for the 4th. The only fireworks that would have been set off in Vientiane were probably at the American ambassador’s residence, wherever that’s located. (There’s usually an evening of entertainment, food and fireworks at American ambassadors’ residences around the world on the 4th.) We had a good time, me eating the “All-American hot dog,” wrapped by half a hamburger bun, and everyone else eating Laos food. (I wonder if grilled squid would go over well in baseball parks in Missoula or Great Falls? Whaddya think, readers?)

The weather was very much in keeping with July 4th, very hot and clear, but a nice breeze and our shaded front porch made for a relaxing day. It was fun for all, but I do miss celebrating the holiday in the ‘States. I’ll go back, sometime, and do it again.

Laos hot dogs

A plate of Laos hot dogs, ready to go on a bun. I think I ate most of these, but a few of the kids present polished off a few also.

Laos hot dog

Laos hot dog on a hamburger bun, which I folded over to create some semblance of an American hot dog experience. Too bad I didn’t have any relish, chili or onions. The dog was actually a bit large for the bun, so on seconds, thirds (and fourths?), I cut the hot dog in half lengthwise so it fit better. They were pretty tasty, though they would have tasted even better if I’d been at a ballpark.

July 4th friends

Here are a few of our friends who came over. A total of about seven adults and three children showed up, about the right size. I told Nai beforehand that I didn’t want to have a big Independence Day party.

Hot Times in Vientiane

The sizzling hot season is here again. From around November through the middle of March we had some very mild and enjoyable weather, with low temperatures, crystal skies and no rain. Now, the temperatures are in the upper 90s to mid 100s fahrenheit (40C), the skies are hazy with all the burn-offs of the stubble in the rice fields and the rainy season is not all that far ahead of us. The current hazy and dusty skies lead to some incredible sunrises, and I’ll try to get some photos of the crimson sun when the opportunities arise. The sun comes up around six o’clock and its color is sometimes unbelievable. It’s already hot at that time on most mornings, but the afternoon heat is much worse and leads to lethargy on everyone’s part here at The Farm. It’s as if the place is deserted, with the kids usually in school and the adults (including me on my days off) laying somewhere in front of a fan. Quite peaceful, but just too hot to enjoy. Thankfully, the college is air conditioned.

Coming up next week is the Lao New Year, Pi Mai Lao. Thailand celebrates this also and there it’s known as Songkran. I’ve written about this before, so see Sabaidee Pi Mai Lao and Bangkok. Because it’s so hot this time of year, the modern day practice of dousing people with water is quite refreshing, but over-done at times. In older days, it was a more understated, but quite important, part of the rituals of the New Year than it is now. Still, it’s a bit of fun for a few days, and I hope to get more movies and photos of the rituals and merriment than I did last year.

My opportunites should be greater because the first trimester of the school year ends next week, and then we’re off for a month. (Which, unfortunately, is unpaid.) I might spend a couple of days in Vientiane away from The Farm around Pi Mai and then, perhaps, take the train down to Bangkok, a city that I love, and goof around for a few days. Songkran in the City of Angels is absolutely chaotic, so I think I’ll go after the celebration and avoid all the insanity. Whatever happens, I’ll keep you informed. More later.

Happy Holidays

I want to wish everyone a Happy Holiday season, whatever and wherever you may be celebrating this time of year. To all my family and friends, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I’m going into Vientiane in just a little while, to see what kind of festivities might be going on in the next few days. However, the double whammy of Laos being a Buddhist country controlled by Communists probably means that there will be few celebrations of Christmas. More likely, the bigger parties will be found on New Year’s Eve and Day.

I’ll spend the New Year holiday at The Farm, since Nai’s family usually has a big get-together at that time, with plenty of food, Beer Lao and other beverages, and music.

So, again, Happy Holidays to everyone and I hope you’re doing well.

Some Pi Mai Lao Videos

Here are a few video clips from the Pi Mai Lao / Noh’s Birthday Party last Monday, April 14th. If they show up as a colored test-screen, just click on the play button. If they’re not playing, please leave me a comment. Thanks and enjoy.

The first one is a general view of the kind of merriment that was taking place.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

More fun with water.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

Suwon and Noh (in the tub).

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

A few passers by get in on the action.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

And some more party goers staying out of the water for now.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.