The Local Experience (Luang Prabang, Laos)

The Local Experience – Luang Prabang – Happy Lao New Year! – Grounds for Celebration


My hosts stared at me impatiently.  I had attempted to hide the food in my hand beneath the table, praying they would assume I had eaten their offering and accomplished the impossible.  I had almost got away with it, but they had caught me and there was no avoiding it now: I had to eat it.

Well, fearless traveler, are you happy?  Wasn’t this your goal in Laos, to “get off the beaten track” and have a “local experience”? What did you expect when these locals invited you to dinner?  Did you think they would serve pizza and hamburgers? 

No, I never would have imagined it would entail eating a duck fetus.  I almost threw up just thinking about it.  And now, the whole family was staring at me in silence, waiting for me to answer their question.

“Umm…yeah, it’s really… [gulp]…. it’s really good.”

I looked down to my hand at the eggshell with the duck embryo staring lifelessly back at me.  I could see matted blue feathers, some kind of exposed organ, a partially formed wing, and a miniature head.  It was a mess of black, blue and yellow.  They had ironically given me a tiny plastic spoon to eat it with, something you would use to sample ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s.   But this was not New York Super Fudge Chunk, it was a partially formed fetus of a duck.

Suck it up, Mark, there is no option but to finish it.  100%.  Cover it with salt and pepper, wash it back with beer, and try not to think about what you are doing.  Think happy thoughts.

The locals were cracking them open, slurping the embryonic fluid and sucking them down like they were half-price oysters at happy hour.  It took me ten minutes and 200% of my willpower to eat 80% of the thing, but I did it.  I haven’t been the same since.  Nightmares of duck fetuses haunt my dreams.  I dream of pooping bird-turds that come to life and chase me around, quack-quack-quacking right behind me.  It’s horrible.  Horrible, but an essential part of the traveler’s experience nonetheless.

It was in search of these local experiences that I had come here to Luang Prabang.  It was the Lunar New Year in Laos, a three-day festival celebrated in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma by religious observances, family feasts, serious beer drinking and massive water-wars in the streets.  Luang Prabang was supposedly the best place to witness the festivities, so I headed for the city not knowing what to expect.

Luang Prabang greatly exceeded my expectations: it is the best place I have been so far.  I don’t know what it was – the immaculately restored French colonial buildings, the serene Buddhist temples, the quiet riverside streets – but I instantly fell in love and decided to stay for at least a week.

Luang Prabang showcases the cultural jewels of two mighty civilizations – the temples and palaces of Lao’s Lan Xang Kingdom are surrounded by charming French cottages, shops and mansions.  Luang Prabang is a UNESCO Heritage City so all the old buildings are restored and the streets are free from obnoxious Beer Lao advertisements or new concrete buildings.  The old homes have been converted into exceptional guesthouses, cafés and spas, attracting an affluent crowd of middle-aged “Bo-Bo’s” (Bohemian Bourgeoisie).   It’s chic, gentrified, and expensive, and because it was Lao New Year the prices skyrocketed and I was effectively priced out.  Luckily I was able to sleep in a tent in the back of a guesthouse for about $3 a night.

The Lao New Year didn’t start for a few days, so I spent a few days walking around the town and peddling through the streets on bicycle.  One day I woke up early and witnessed unique spectacle: at dawn the monasteries pour their monks into the streets to silently collect donations of rice, fruits, and sweets from local women who kneel respectfully along the sidewalks.  It was beautifully peaceful.

But this peace wouldn’t last long; Lao New Year was coming.  South East Asia had been rumbling in anticipation for weeks.  From the wide plains of Burma to the airy mountains of northern Laos, eager children stockpiled water guns, attacked passing buses and trains with guerilla tactics, and anxiously awaited the Lunar New Year.

I was not blind to this arms race.  As the plastic weapons vanished from the markets into secret backyard caches, I tucked my laptop deep in my backpack, sealed my passport in a plastic bag, and prepared for the approaching warfare.

The three-day battle began on April 14th at noon.  Lao children manned every intersection, lined every avenue, and stopped every passing motorist for a good soaking.  Entire families sat in front of their houses drinking beer, dancing to music, and pouring water on anything that moved.

Trucks prowled the Old Quarter loaded with militias of grinning children eager to turn every dry shirt wet and every wet shirt wetter still, pausing only to refill their 55-gallon drums in the Mekong River.  Even the monks and the military police were getting soaked.  Red, yellow, and green-dyed water sailed through the air, and locals smeared handfuls of engine grease on our faces and breaded passer-bys with cooking flower – pure madness.

The madness spread from the locals to the tourists and packs of falang joined into the battle, brandishing the latest in crappy Lao water guns.  Everyone was smiling, laughing and swilling Beer Lao in the hot tropic sun. I slipped through alleyways and crept along the sidewalks with my makeshift weapon in hand – a flimsy water bottle with a tiny hole in the top.  I was no match for the local kids, who would scream Falang! Falang! , encircle me, douse me with water and cover my grizzly beard in motor oil.  By the end of the day I was haggard beyond belief.

Midway through the first day’s battle, everyone laid down their arms, closed up their houses, and migrated to the banks of the Mekong.  We all loaded onto longboats and ferried to the a small, muddy island in the middle of the coffee-colored river.  I spent hours barefoot in the mud, dancing with the locals to a repeating soundtrack of about five songs: one Lao song, two Thai pop songs, and two songs by Akon.  Then more Akon.  And more. Then one more Thai song, followed by more Akon.

I danced away the afternoon on an island full of boisterously drunken Laos, surrendered to the moment, and allowed their infectious happiness spread all over me.  It was not long ago that Laos was embroiled in a nasty civil war that left no time for such childish celebrations, when the guns shot lethal bullets, not harmless water; when grenades, not water-balloons, exploded into crowds; when the French mansions were barricaded and dilapidated, not renovated and sophisticated; when the streets were stained crimson with blood, not food-coloring.  But in 2009 the streets were packed with smiling children who had never witnessed the horrors of warfare.  Laos’ turbulent past was fading into distant memory.

I’d expected Luang Prabang to be touristic, but instead I barely spent any time with other travelers.  I was force-fed duck embryos, I drank Beer Lao with locals in the streets, I danced on an island in the Mekong, I hung out with monks, I ate dinner with Lao families, and I was even invited to a Lao wedding ceremony.  At times it was awkward, but overall it was immensely rewarding to celebrate the New Year with the locals.

The eight days I spent in Luang Prabang were not enough.  Signs everywhere advertised apartments for rent: fully-furnished, two story houses for $150 a month.  I seriously considered stopping here and spending a month or two soaking up more of the local culture.  I loved the essence of the town, the absurdity of the attempt to swap the Seine for the Mekong and recreate France in the middle of the Asian jungle.  It was an enchanting place, but the holiday finished, the crowds dispersed, and I decided to continue my journey southwards.  I spent my last night dancing to Akon in the street with a local family, then waved goodbye to Luang Prabang and took a bus south to Vang Vieng to volunteer on an organic farm for a few days.

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