In Mid-April, in the town of Vang Vieng, we attended the cheerful celebration of Pi Mai Lao, the Lao New Year. Hundreds of people poured small buckets of water over us, wishing us Happy New Year. We joined the teams by the roadside and did our own share of watering people passing by. Beer Lao was generously offered to friends and strangers alike, music was played from large loudspeakers all around the town and everybody had a great time.
Traditionally, people prepare flowers and perfumed water which is taken to temples and sprinkled over buddha statues. Some of the water is carried back home and gently poured on relatives and friends, to purify them and give a good start for the New Year. This all still happens and the Buddhist New Year is a beautiful time to visit a temple, stop for a prayer and do the ceremony following the locals. We also did.
A newer habit is to stand in small groups by the roadside, armed with a garden hose, buckets and water guns, and to pour or throw water on everyone who passes by. People in Laos usually drive small motorcycles, which makes them good targets. Even the majority of cars are pickups or half-open trucks, with people sitting in the back unprotected from water. If someone doesn't like to get wet, it's simply best to stay indoors. Most people don't mind, as it's part of the New Year and the sun dries everything quickly anyway.
In the gentle and polite version of the New Year greeting, people first wave the driver to stop. Then they pour a small amount of water on the neck so that it runs down along the back, accompanied with a cheerful wish of "Sabai dii Pi Mai", "Souksan van Pi Mai" or "Suk dii Pi Mai", which translate to "Happy New Year" or "Good luck for the New Year". If someone has a bag or something else which shouldn't get wet, it can be lifted up so that no damage is done. Especially elderly people were mostly greeted this way.
We as young foreigners on bicycles were naturally fair targets for all variants of the game. Often we got several buckets of water poured over us, followed by a glass of beer to drink, which we were expected to finish before being allowed to ride forwards. Children sprayed us with water guns, sometimes with water coloured in yellow, green or red. A couple of times we also got white talcum powder sprinkled on our heads. It was fun to ride around to see and feel the party.
When we wanted to play with water ourselves, we simply stopped at one of the groups of locals by the roadside. They welcomed us enthusiastically with an extra dose of water to make sure we'd be wet enough, we got buckets, a bit of colour to the face and a glass of beer, and were ready to join the team. So we also poured and threw water on passers-by, on each other and on everybody around, wished all Happy New Year and danced to the music. As for the beer, we tried our best to drink a little bit with everyone while avoiding to get too drunk. I'd say it worked out quite well.
There were also many groups driving around in pickup trucks, equipped with barrels full of water, buckets, water guns and sometimes small water bombs. They engaged in water fights with other pickups and with the teams by the roadside. Even a bigger truck with a several thousand liter tank of water drove around spraying water from a big hose. We heard that spraying water directly from garden hoses and coloured water are actually forbidden, but nobody seemed to mind. These were joyful water fights where everybody wins.
Officially the celebrations lasted for three days, from 14th until 16th of April. Some people started a day or two earlier, but 16th was really the last day with water play. Eating, drinking and dancing continued a day or two more, extending the party to a full week. Most of the activity happened during daytime, from about 10 am until 5 or 6 pm. In the evening nobody was throwing water any more: it was time to sit down, eat and drink with friends. Music was played at all times. In Laos nobody complains about loud music even at night, especially not during New Year. Still, after 9 or 10 pm most people went to sleep and it was already relatively quiet.
We were impressed by the openness of people welcoming us, even though we didn't know more than a couple of words of Lao and the English abilities of our hosts were often on the same level. In Germany or Finland strangers passing by would not be so easily invited to join and warmly welcomed to a party. The attitude of the Lao people was that shared fun is more fun, and everybody is welcome. That's something we can also try to learn from them.
Overall, the Lao New Year was one the funniest festivals we've ever been to. People were happy, playful and relaxed, having a good party mood. The water play was sometimes wild, but not rough. If we happen to be in Laos or Thailand (where the festival is called Songkran) in the future at the same time of the year, we'll certainly be on the streets again.
Our bicycle tour continued to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, and further North-East towards Laos. The landscape became more mountainous and the roads climbed up and down with numerous sharp curves. The temperatures were pleasantly a bit cooler than in Central Thailand, due to the higher altitude and the surrounding hills and mountains. Especially during the nights the temperatures dropped, making blankets more useful than air condition.
About 60 km north-east of Chiang Mai we came to the Bua Tong waterfall. We had seen several beautiful waterfalls a few days earlier in the Doi Inthanon national park, but Bua Tong totally surprised us. The water flowed down the cliffs in relatively small steps, which had a sandpaper like surface with a good grip. Children and adults alike were climbing up and down the falls, playing with the water. We naturally joined the party: a refreshing and fun experience!
In Chiang Khong we crossed the border over the Mekong river to Huay Xai, Laos. There we took a break from cycling and joined the Gibbon Experience, a one and a half day trip to the jungle with ziplines. Wearing a climbing harness and hanging from a metal wire, one glides through the forest and above the treetops. It was a series of exciting rides and great views to the nature at the same time, with the longest ziplines being almost a kilometer long. The night was spent in a treehouse, swinging gently in the wind several dozen meters above the ground. We didn't see any gibbons, but enjoyed the forest which had some magnificent giant trees. According to the Gibbon Experience website, the income of the activity is funding the protection of the forest. Without deeper knowledge it's hard to say how large a share truly goes to preservation, and how much building the ziplines and riding them disturbs the nature, but I do believe it's a more sustainable business model than logging and burning the forest to fields.
From Huay Xai we continued further east across Northern Laos. The Lao road network is much less dense than in Thailand, so we couldn't easily plan a route on secondary roads. Fortunately the main road number 3 towards Luang Namtha was far from a busy highway, rather resembling the countryside roads we had been cycling in Thailand. The population density of Laos is less than a fifth of that in Thailand, and only few people have cars. Heavily loaded old trucks and minibuses occasionally unfreshened the air with thick black clouds of exhaust while passing us, but the traffic density was low enough not to bother us too much.
The road continued to go up and down large hills, with beautiful views down to the valleys on higher passes. The surface was paved and in good condition, a pleasure to ride. The land was partly covered by forest and partly deforested, with mainly Chinese and Vietnamese buying the wood. We saw many small rivers, which were generally cleaner than in Thailand, probably due to almost complete lack of any industry in the area.
Both Lao and Thai people have a habit to burn patches of land, often to prepare a field but sometimes with no apparent purpose. Most of the burning happens between February and April, which in combination of the long dry period makes the air misty and dusty, like constantly being inside a thin cloud. It has not been difficult to breathe but we have certainly felt the difference from fresh and clear mountain air. We've also missed the blue sky, which will only appear again when the rainy season begins in May or June.
Roughly every five kilometers the road went through a small village. Children were happily waving and shouting "Hello" or "Sabaidee", often running to the roadside to meet us. They didn't have much but were laughing, playing and seemingly enjoying life. We rarely heard a child crying or anybody shouting in an angry voice. Adults were a bit more reserved but many still greeted us, staring, smiling and wondering why on earth were we pedaling all those uphills by bicycle when also motorcycles had been invented.
Most of the houses in villages were modest bamboo huts, probably similar than they've been for hundreds of years, except being nowadays equipped with electricity, tv and a satellite dish. Cooking was still commonly done on fire and washing at the village well. Here and there between the huts appeared fancier newer houses built from concrete, especially in villages located near bigger towns. Almost every village also had an elementary school, often built with the support of some charity organization. That was the situation in villages next to the main road. Rural villages tucked between the mountains, many of them accessible only via narrow dirt tracks, are apparently still less developed.
We cycled about 400 km from west to east via Luang Namtha and Oudomxay until Muang Khoua, a small town near the Vietnamese border. From there we took a two-day boat ride south on the Nam Ou river, finally joining the Mekong and arriving in Luang Prabang. The ride was very scenic, villages by the riverside only accessible by boat, fishermen, water buffaloes, small rapids, rock formations, sandy beaches and majestic mountains. Between the two days spent in the boat we stayed for two nights in Muang Ngoi, a riverside village transformed into a backpacker hangout as a result of all the boats stopping there. Despite the tourist crowds it was still a quiet and atmospheric place, having no cars and electricity only between 6 and 10 pm produced by a generator. That said, a new electricity line was just being installed and a road being built, which will certainly make a big change.
In Luang Prabang we went to see some of the well-known sights. The old and beautiful Xiengthong temple and the Kuang Xi waterfalls 30 km outside the city with idyllic turquoise pools were really worth a visit. After that we headed again out to the countryside and started cycling towards Phonsavan. The road was even a bit more mountainous than earlier parts of our route, making some of the days quite exhausting. Villages seemed to be a bit wealthier than in the north, but ironically the first time children came to beg for candy and money. It didn't happen often, but a few times during our ride through the region.
Overall the pace of life in Laos is slow, slower than in Thailand. Selection in shops and on the markets is smaller, there is not much effort in arranging things attractively on the shelves and never a push to buy anything. Restaurants are serving more basic food, which however is usually tasty and not too spicy. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to go somewhere. This helps also the traveller to adopt a more relaxed and simple lifestyle. We will see how the atmosphere will change in a few days, during the celebration of Pi Mai, the Lao New Year. In addition to old traditions of cleaning homes and paying respect to the gods, the festivities include some wild partying and water throwing. In these temperatures being sprayed with water is a pleasure, so we're looking forward to joining and getting wet.
Sandra and I are now in Thailand and this photo shows one of our most exciting moments during the first two weeks. We were riding a moped back from Palau waterfall in Kaeng Krachan national park, when suddenly two big wild elephants were walking towards us on the road. A Thai man stopped his moped, turned around and adviced us to do the same. We drove back a couple of hundred meters and watched how the beautiful animals walked slowly forwards. One of them decided to return to the forest, the other continued on the road.
A car came from our direction and started slowly driving around the elephant. We followed behind the car together with the Thai motorist. Just as the car was passing, the elephant turned and started again crossing the road. The car and the Thai motorist got through, we weren't sure and stopped. Should we get off from the moped and slowly retreat on foot, or what should we do? Fortunately the elephant decided to stay in the middle of the road, leaving us enough space on the side. Sandra held her nerves well enough to point the camera towards the giant and take the photo.
We started our Thailand tour on the 14th of February by flying to Bangkok and taking a bus to Hua Hin. There we visited Sandra's father, who married a Thai woman after the early death of Sandra's mother, and who is now living in Thailand with his new family. In addition to meeting the family, Hua Hin was a good place to get adjusted to the climate, to try out Thai food and delicious fruits, to spend a bit of time on the beach, to enjoy a Thai massage, to visit a few temples and to get used to the left hand side traffic. The trip to Palau by moped was an exception, mostly we rode our bicycles which we brought with us.
After a week in Hua Hin we spent two days in Bangkok, which was a quite hectic experience after the more relaxed Hua Hin. We cycled once across the whole city from the western bus terminal to our hotel, which we had less wisely booked in the eastern part of Bangkok. After that we switched to public transport and walking. Once we rode motorcycle taxis, the fastest way to get around and an experience in itself. Of the most famous sights we went to see the big lying golden Buddha statue at Wat Pho, but skipped the Grand Palace. The backpacker oriented Khao San area was a bit more laid back, including roads without cars, with food stands on the side and foot massages outside in open air. We also shortly met my old friend Phisit, who kindly invited us for lunch near his workplace.
From Bangkok we took a train north to Phitsanulok and started our cycling tour. We rode first to Sukhothai spending one day around old temple ruins, and from there through the countryside and small towns towards Chiang Mai. Now we are at Chom Thong, near Thailand's highest mountain Doi Inthanon and the surrounding Doi Inthanon national park.
Especially smaller roads have been nice and motorists surprisingly polite. Cars and trucks mostly leave a large safety margin when overtaking us — sometimes vehicles coming from the opposite direction have to cope with a much less space than we do. People are yelling "Hello hello" from their houses when we're passing: the smaller the road the more attention we gather. A few times we've got spontaneous gifts such as bottles of drinking water or a watermelon. Unfortunately the locals' English ability is usually limited to the "Hello" and we don't speak enough Thai to really communicate with them.
Daily high temperatures are constantly over 35°C, and the sun shines strongly. We try to start relatively early in the morning and find accommodation latest early afternoon, leaving time to rest during the hottest time and to walk around later in the evening. Hotels and guesthouses are mostly easy to find, and cost around 400 Baht (10€) for a modern and clean room with air conditioning, less with fan only. Two times we stayed with CouchSurfing hosts, enjoying generous hospitality and learning more about the local culture and habits.
Staying connected in Thailand is quite easy nowadays. Almost all hotels and guesthouses have free wireless Internet. And when that's not available, we can use our one month / 1 GB mobile Internet package which we got for 500 Baht including the SIM card and some talk time. Phone calls with Thai SIM cards are cheap too, even when calling abroad. Roaming fees are absurdly high, so our Finnish and German cards we're keeping out of our phones.
Sandra and I spent the Christmas and New Year on the small 8 km² island of Karlsøya, Norway, 400 km north from the polar circle. That's north enough that in the winter sun remains under the horizon for two months, and in the summer it shines all around the clock for an equally long period, at least when clouds are not blocking it. For us it was the first time being so far north during winter time.
Compared to our expectations there was actually a lot of light. We thought it'd be mostly dark, with just a little bit of red in the horizon. But for about four hours each day it was bright enough to call it daylight. First it was an hour long sunrise with all shades of red and yellow, then about two hours of blue sky and after that a one hour sunset. Even at noon we didn't see the sun of course, so it felt a bit strange to see blue sky, sometimes with the moon in the middle of it. Taking photos with automatic white balance settings produced constantly more reddish results than the eye would see. Either the camera software was confused or perhaps our brain partly filtered out the red, hard to say. We tweaked the settings to make the colours as close as possible to what we saw.
On cloudy days it was clearly more dark, and the time one could easily walk outside without a lamp reduced from four or five to about three hours. Clouds also blocked the moonlight, which was quite strong on clear days. Northern lights appeared a few times, but unfortunately only relatively modest green stripes; no multi-coloured show filling the sky.
Another surprise was the temperature. We had not really checked any long term weather forecasts and were prepared for temperatures down to -30°C or so. That was indeed the case 100 km inland, but the coast is so strongly warmed up by the Gulf Stream that extreme temperatures are rare. On Karlsøya it was between 0 and -10°C, on some days even above zero. There was less snow than we had in Southern Germany in December when we left.
We slept inside a building which had earlier been a school and is nowadays mostly used only during a yearly summer festival. With more than 50 people the space was tight, but at least it was warm enough. The program of the gathering consisted of eating, preparing food, discussion circles, workshops, live music, singing, dancing and lazying around. Most of that happened inside, so it was good to also get out and go on walks around the island. That required a bit of attention — it was too easy to stay up until late night, get up late in the morning, have a slow breakfast and miss the daylight completely. Towards the end of our stay it happened to us more and more often.
One of our nicest walks was climbing on top of the nearby hill on December 21, the shortest day of the year. The peak rose to about 200 meter altitude from the sea level. There was a view over whole Karlsøya and towards higher snow-covered mountains on nearby islands in several directions. The midday moon and sunset over the scenery was a beautiful sight.
I'm traveling with Sandra to Northern Norway for the last two weeks of the year to join a gathering of other likeminded people. It will surely be a different Christmas than we've ever had before - non-commercial and without rush. We will celebrate the winter solstice with the sun remaining under the horizon all the day. The moon, stars and northern lights will be visible if we're lucky.
We wish all of you a merry end of the year, in whatever way you're celebrating it, and let the new year 2013 be full of happiness! The photo in our season's greetings card is from our summer and autumn trip to Finland and Sweden. We were hiking in the the Sarek national park in Swedish Lapland and set up our tent next to a small river in the wilderness, far away from trails and huts. Around half past ten in the evening the sky was illuminated by this beautiful arc of green light.
We spent also several weeks visiting family and friends in Finland. Mushroom and berry season was great so we ate plenty of chantarelles, blueberries and lingonberries, and also filled quite a few jars with them. At my father's summer cottage we spent a week renovating the sauna as a 65 year birthday surprise for him. We also had time to read a few books, but somehow didn't manage to update the blog. :-)
In the beginning of October we returned to Germany, in time for Sandra's best friend's wedding. October is usually a good time for outdoor activities in southern Germany and this year was no exception, many sunny days with blue sky. When not being outside we worked on a few more things in our flat and tried our best to get bureaucracy stuff done. It takes an amazingly long time after selling a business before bills and other letters from various directions finally stop coming.
During winter and/or spring 2013 we're planning a trip to South-East Asia, particularly to visit Sandra's father who is living in Thailand already since more than five years. But before that we'll see how we'll manage the cold above the polar circle. At least it's not only a camp - there should be some kind of heated building and maybe even a sauna.