|Somehow skipped filling this in before. Here goes, and we'll keep it short.
The highlight during our first stay in Luang Prabang was the pleasant surprise that the town's annual (and festive) Retreat of The Waters Boat Races were happening. We had heard of this festival, but were told that it usually takes place in October. But becuase it the festival celebrates the end of the heavy rains, it can happen anytime from September to November. Don't ask me how they know it's not going to rain anymore, but anyway it was our good fortune to witness the big day.
We arrived from Vang Vien on friday and only found out that night that the races were the following day. We are lucky to get the last available room in our guesthouse, and again lucky to find out the the guest houes we have randomly chosen is right by the river where the races take place.
As we stroll around that evening we can see the shops along the river front street erecting stalls and building walls with the cases of BeerLao they have summoned from the breweries. (Due to my antibiotics I've not been drinking, but something says to deep-down - "When in Rome...")
When we wake in the morning the street are alreayd abuzz with people and the sounds so familiar to Americans on the fourth of July. In Laos, all of this commotion is especially jarring as most of the time the streets, and the people in them, are so subdued. Today, however, the streets are jammed with people. Kids running about with plastic guns, balloons, and kites. Adult men lining the brick walls overlooking the river with Beerlaos in one hand and cigarettes in the other. Families have secured small picnic areas with their blankets, with food and drinks set up aplenty for the generations to enjoy. Grandma holds her grandson and cousins struggle to contain their excitement as they smaller ones beg the bigger ones to let them see the river over their shoulder. Mandy and I weave in and out of the large crowds trying to find a view ourselves, or a place to sit down in the shade.
We are simply enjoying the spectacle of it all (the races have yet to begin) when something odd happens to us. Neither of us quite know how it happened, but by simply stumbling on an empty plastic stool we are invited to sit down with a group of middle-aged Laos men. They insist we sit with them and quickly offer us a welcome shot of the lao-lao they are are all sharing. Lao-lao is rice whiskey and the mainstay of Laos inebriation. One shot, two shot, thank you, thank you. Three? Well, it's only polite. They smile with us and although direct communication is initially impossible they make us feel welcome to stay and we feel happy to do so.
Three hours later we have complimented their offers of whiskey with several rounds of BeerLao. Some bottles come out ice-cold, but most are shared around a bucket of (questionable) ice. We assume the potent lao-lao will kill most of the bacteria, and anyway, When in Rome. At some point, because our guesthouse was close by, we grab our Laos phrasebook and through this fine invention we are able to exchange information with our new friends. Here and there the female members of their families come and join us, bring with them their kids and nephews and nieces. By midafternoon we have met the whole families. One of the men's son, who has been entrusted into the custody of his dad this day, is rather upset to be confined to big-person world while all his cousins and friends were off playing in the woods. Perhaps he was under punishment, we didn't find out, but we did our best to include him by entrusting him with our sunglasses and giving him some of the extra bracellets that were being sold all over town. When one of his female cousins came over to join us for a while we showed them how to play "bottlecaps". They had a great time trying to find the split peanut as I shuffled the bottlecaps around and around. They got quite hard to fool by the end, and the boy was all smiles as he confounded me over and over again.
As the races intensified below, our group decided we needed to get better seats to see the final legs. The men followed as the kids gripped our hands to show us the way. It was hardly the effect of the sun or the booze that made us smile as these young kids escorted us through the dense packs of people towards the lower banks of the river. They certainly knew where they were going and we watched the quarter and semi-final races with them from great vantage points.
It was a wonderful day and a fine experience. Our luck doubled and redoubled as our chance timing introduced us to new friends and we were blessed with a truly authentic experience in the mayhem of the festival.