A Laotian New Year

Having not taken any time out of my day to read the guidebook while chugging for eight hours down the mighty Mekong River, I relied, as usual, on my partner to impart her previously-acquired knowledge. What I did know about the place already, however, was that it served as a necessary stopover, breaking up a two-day boat journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos. But it wasn’t just any night; it was New Year’s Eve.

Despite our atrocious planning that was about to see us spend a night of such significance in a Laotian nowheresville, we were determined to make it at least noteworthy for better or worse. And given that our tour bible didn’t have much to say about the place, our assumptions for the evening gravitated toward the latter. Annoyed at our lack of foresight we agreed that New Year’s Eve is frequently anti-climactic at home where, at the stroke of midnight, we can usually be found singing Auld Lang Syne as counterparts of a huddle of merry strangers in an over-priced bar while clinging to the oft-false hopes of a better year ahead.

With this at the forefront of our minds as the boat moored, we gathered our pessimistic demeanors and gazed over our home for the night up on the elevated banks of the river. We couldn’t help but hope that the eclectic horde of people who, annoyingly, had brought their own New Years Eve party on the boat for eight hours (including alcohol, music and cheer), wasn’t going to have to count as our own celebration.

Apathetically we stepped off the boat into a gaggle of touts, choosing to ignore offers of help with our bags to pace up the lengthy and steep concreted boat landing as our self-punishment for crimes against preparation. It wasn’t long before we were chased up the ramp by a kid no older than my passport and offered a room next door to an establishment selling copious amounts of beer and wine. Great, I thought. My cynicism assuming new-found levels, I couldn’t help but think of it as a chemist selling prescriptions for ailments such as this – the dosages of which requiring no prior authorisation from a certified doctor.

It was late as we left our guesthouse in search of something to eat and perhaps a little festivity. I was less enthusiastic than my partner about finding the source of a scattering of lanterns in the clear, moonlit sky.

“But they’re so pretty”, Helen commented earnestly.

“I don’t care“, I grumpily retorted as my belly started to make noises. “They’re probably miles away anyway.”

Down the road toward the river and up a hill that veered off to the right, I was forced to bow to her intrepidity. In the grounds of a large, traditional wooden building, we happened across a gathering of around one hundred locals all dressed in white and chanting melodic mantra-like verses in Lao. At first sight it might have been rational to assume it was some sort of cult but as we stood mesmerized by the display, any sinister thoughts evaporated in the fresh night air. Instead, we agreed, it was magical. Their white attire was illuminated not only by the light of the cartoon moon but the flickering orange glow of huge lanterns adorned with fire crackers and rocket trails.

We didn’t stand watching for long. We were invited and fervently welcomed to join them in holding the rim of each lantern until the accumulated gas inside propelled them up into the star-littered sky. The repetitive chanting was infectious and, though we were unable to sing, we soon found ourselves lost in the moment while subconsciously humming along. We each had a lantern dedicated to us after being asked our names, which were then integrated into the harmonious chant. Every so often we would hear our names sandwiched between words that to us were delightfully incomprehensible.

We released dozens of lanterns over the course of an hour, each one applauded faithfully by its dedicatee as it peacefully accelerated skyward and on which many hopes, prayers and wishes were pinned. Magic.
N Burt

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