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Panic in Lao

Pi Mai Lao – the Lao New Year. It’s the Lao interpretation of the New Year on the same calendar used in Thailand. The Lao, usually a quiet, modest, and polite people, take this opportunity to descend into madness and debauchery, soaking each other relentlessly with water, powdering all in sight with tapioca, and smearing black gunk over their faces and those of passers-by.

The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. The daughters would visit their father’s head every year and perform a wetting ritual to bring happiness and good weather. About the white powder and black-face, I am still searching for the cultural significance, so if any of you readers know, by all means please share.

My Pi Mai Lao experience started bright and early, when spurred by some inner failsafe, I shot out of bed, thinking in a frothing panic “Where is my backpack?!!” I ravaged through the room, turning on the light and waking Stewart and Scott. “Oh no, oh no…” I paced the room. “How could I be such an idiot?”

Stewart propped himself up to 30 degrees from horizontal and addressed me through the phlegmy veils of slumber. “Relax. I know this is hard to believe, but this is Lao. I think we can get your bag back.”

“You think we can get it back?!”

“Yeah, we lost a bag full of money once on a Dragon’s trip here, hundreds of dollars, left it at a street vendor, and they hung onto it for weeks and returned it untouched.” I was still skeptical and panicking. Motta continued calmly, as though speaking in a trance, “What time is it?”

“5:00 am,” I was cold sweating.

“Wake me up at 6:30, and we’ll try to find your bag.”

I tried, but sleeping was out of the question, so I took a long shower and paced and waited for 6:30 to roll around. Eventually it did, and I shook Mr. Motta to life. We grabbed the Speed TRs from where we had folded and stashed them under a staircase the night before, and headed out into the city.

It was the first day of Pi Mai Lao, and preparations were well underway. To get to the location of the night market, we needed to go through a giant morning market where everything from caged birds to giant catfish and beetles were for sale. The place was packed. Lao is definitely an early morning society, and today was no exception. Everyone in Luang Prabang seemed to be out and about. Despite the propellant of clenching fear and volatile hope that churned in my stomach, we had to dismount and walk the bikes through the thick crowd.

When we finally got to the street market, we found it a ghost town. Only one woman was there serving food, maybe four stalls down and across the walkway from our stall of the night before. She was serving up the Lao interpretation of Khao Soi. In the north of Thailand, it is a coconut curry soup, creamy and thick. In Lao it is a tomato and ground meat soup, with a semi-translucent reddish broth.

Stew began explaining to the woman, in Lao, what had happened to my bag. She smiled and expressed her regrets, and we were about to move on when she had a thought. She called to Stew, and we turned around. She started asking follow-up questions: Was it a young girl or an old man? Was she selling drinks or meats? Finally, she seemed to have narrowed it down, and looking satisfied, she called to her two daughters, who had been helping her wash vegetables, and told us to follow them.

We followed them, walking the bikes behind the two tiny Lao women, as they picked their way onto a side street holding hands. The two of them walked slowly, and were so dainty and frail as to seem weightless. In the strange gray morning light, filtered through the smoke all around us, I felt as though I were in a dream. We walked the Speed TRs behind them along the uneven pavement, and I felt separated from reality, afraid to hope, but not yet willing to despair.

We turned another couple of streets and found our way to a small concrete building, where some people were sleeping on the linoleum floor. One of them got up, an old man, while his younger wife (or daughter?) pulled out two chairs for us. Mr. Motta and I removed our shoes and entered the home.

The old man slowly climbed up a creaking ladder made of large bamboo poles toward the attic of the building. He then reappeared with… my backpack! I was so excited I nearly bit my tongue in half. I thanked him as much as I could in Lao and English, and after a brief counsel with Stewart decided to give him about $5.50 as an appropriate thank you. The man smiled and bowed to me with hands pressed together; I awkwardly returned the gesture.

As we walked away, with the bag on my back, I felt as though I had been given an undeserving gift by the gods of wheeling. All morning my mind had been playing over the ramifications of my lost passport. We would have needed to spend another week at least in Lao, getting a new one, and then we would have needed to re-populate it with visas… it would have been a huge investment of time, effort, and capital… but no need for that now. I had my bag, here it was.

We stopped back at the Khao Soi place for a celebratory bowl of noodles.

I opened by bag and rifled through it. Everything appeared to still be there. As I put my bag down on the seat next to me, Stewart commented… “I think I know that bag from somewhere….”

“Well,” I replied “Martin, my step brother, used it throughout most of highschool.”

“No… I think it was mine at some point.” This was not at all out of the question. We were both from the same small town of Grinnell, Iowa, where most things have a way of circulating.

“Well, now it’s coming AsiaWheeling.”

“Cool. Cool,” Motta replied.

Cool. Cool. Indeed.


  1. Jesse | May 6th, 2010 | 7:06 am

    Haha WOW! What a lucky break! And here you had me feeling all sorry for you for the last day. I guess you just wanted to share some of the suspense. Nicely done.

    I think that really tells you something about the Laos people. My feeling is that you wouldn’t be so lucky in Vietnam, though you never know.


  2. laura | May 6th, 2010 | 7:35 am

    WOW indeed! my stomach was in knots with you! where else in the world would that happen?! one of the many experiences to treasure on your trip and definitely a chapter in the book!

  3. Henkes | May 6th, 2010 | 7:49 am


  4. John | May 6th, 2010 | 8:51 am

    The white powder on the face was supposed to bring general protection and ward off bad spirits for the coming year.

  5. Scott | May 6th, 2010 | 11:07 am


    Thanks very much for informing us. Does the black soot on the face signify the same?


  6. John | May 6th, 2010 | 12:46 pm

    I don’t know of any historical precedent for the black soot. If I had to guess I would say that like a lot of elements in Lao new year, it was added gradually as part of just making a mess and having a good time. The new year is a time of letting go in a society that’s still pretty repressed, which can mean more open promiscuity or harder partying. It also means that if someone throws flour on you, they probably aren’t aiming to keep away evil spirits.

  7. Mark/Dad | May 8th, 2010 | 3:33 pm

    What a relief!

    And on a side note–how did the kitty resist all the fish in the market video?! I also loved the water-filled street video with Stew laughing in the background.

  8. Woody | May 8th, 2010 | 9:11 pm

    @ Mark/Dad

    I think that those long sticks with plastic bags on the end play a dual role as fly and kitty deterrent.

    Agreed about Stew in that video; what a great guy.

  9. Val | May 9th, 2010 | 7:06 pm

    What an amazing story!! I can’t believe you got your bag back! I have NEVER lived anywhere where that would have happened. NEVER.

    I could feel your panic, deep down in my stomach-that was some big potential catastrophe! I can’t imagine how deliriously happy you were when you saw it…

    Well, I’m so glad I can go to sleep tonight knowing you found your bag.

  10. AsiaWheeling » Blog Archive » Another Dam Dead End | December 31st, 2010 | 8:25 am

    […] grab it, considering it contained my computer, camera and the like, and finding that, once again, my enchanted backpack refused to disappear. The owner of the restaurant was waiting with it in his arms, smiling at me. […]

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