The pinnacle of one’s public school education in Indonesia ultimately dwindles down into a weeklong test-taking marathon prompting student freak out on national levels that the government formally recognizes as the ‘ujian nasional’. These series of examinations are heavily flawed (‘ignorance is bliss’ applies to those readers elsewhere), result in the worst collective cheating I’ve ever heard of, and unfortunately not only determine the futures of thousands upon thousands of Indonesia’s youth but also teachers and entire school systems. It’s heartbreaking really. It’s also funny because once the tests arrive in their respective regencies, they’re kept under close watch at the police headquarters for ‘safe keeping’, and when I say ‘safe keeping’ I really mean to say ‘corruption prevention’. I’ve heard horror stories of people selling the answer keys to teachers, proctors reading the answers aloud or even blatantly leaving the room to let the students have free reign. During the week of these examinations, my 11th graders had vacation time, and so I too felt it to be the appropriate time to take a brief hiatus from this reprehensible time. Fortunately for me, these examinations overlapped with the Laos New Year celebrations – perfecto!
Hannah, a best friend of mine since kindergarten, has been living and teaching in Vientiane, Laos through Princeton-in-Asia for almost two years now. I had made it a goal to visit her since receiving my Peace Corps invitation. After some easy persuasion and wooing, Hannah and I convinced two of our other close childhood friends, Ben and Joe, to make the trip over to celebrate Pi Mai Lao with us. Pretty sure neither of them regretted their decisions. Joe flew over First Class for free using his Chase points while Thai Airways provided purple pajamas and free massages! Meanwhile, as we speak, Ben is still doing some solo traveling around Asia… I’m not jealous or anything.
According to Lao calendar, we were celebrating year 2055. And what did that really mean? It meant three day celebrations of wet debauchery that would sureeely send all ibu’s and bapak’s here on a tailspin of disapproval and utter disbelief that there was an actual religious purpose to these festivities. It meant legitimizing day drinking (and copious amounts of day drinking it was, #cultural norm), being forced to chug endless cups of Beerlao (or else you’re considered rude according to the stranger giving it to you, #cultural obligation), being soaking wet all the time and covered dyes and baby powder all while gracing the streets of Vientiane wearing gaudy Hawaiian t-shirts and bro-tanks, being invited to complete strangers’ homes and roadside parties only to be hand fed questionably soggy French fries, it meant chucking buckets of water on anyone walking the streets or riding by on their motorcycles/cars and not having them get angry (again, #cultural norm), and dancing on the sidewalks with locals to American Top 40’s hits until one could literally no longer stand.
Since I arrived the day after Pi Mai began, I missed the first day of religious rituals, of going to the temples and throwing perfume water on and cleansing Buddha statues. As intriguing as the religious aspect was, I was there for the reunion with my friends and to partake in the ridiculousness that I’d been reading about (celebrating 2054 & photos). After living in Indonesia, you could say I was religiously burnt out. I’d be going too far to label these celebrations ‘the Mardi Gras of Southeast Asia’ but it was pretty damn close minus the beads and the boobies.
I’ve convinced myself that attempting to accurately convey my first Pi Mai experience into words still wouldn’t do it justice — instead I’ve pieced together a short video accompanied by one of my favorite Daft Punk songs.
What’s not depicted in the video:
- The obscene amount of times we listened/terribly sang to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ (so what if I’m living in 2010?)
- The amount of Western food consumed… I may or may not have teared up while consuming a real veggie sandwich and some mac ‘n cheese. Hey, it happens.
- The number of times we referred to Twitter, #hash#marks#, and commenting on something being ‘swag’
- How surreal it was hanging out at an ex-pat gym/pool trap
- Nostalgically reverting to old high school ways aka dispensing ‘necks’ (see Luang Prabang video)
I do advise you to check out the other two videos that Ben put together, the experience will more or less make more sense!
90 Seconds in Pi Mai Lao:
90 Seconds in Luang Prabang (& divvying out ‘necks’), I’m fun to travel with, I swear!:
During my brief week of chaotic times in Vientiane clouded by culturally forced inebriation and the calm moments spent in the sleepy cultural capital of Luang Prabang, I felt a sense of appreciation and admiration for Laotians; for embracing how utterly ludicrous this once traditional event had evolved to become but still being able to maintain a strong sense tradition and distinct cultural awareness. I’m not sure if this is a communist-thing but I felt that despite Laotians being at a geographical disadvantage, having struggled but persisted through a dismal colonial history, and taking the unfortunate trophy for being the most bombed country in the world — a fervent sense of national pride for was still quite evident.
There’s no question, Laos seemed to be everything that Indonesia wasn’t, naturally I shrugged off my PCV hat for those moments and indulged (imagine: soaking in a kiddie pool fully clothed, sipping Skittle shots and eating fingerfuls of fresh pesto by itself, I know, I’m a monster) but ultimately I realized that having lived in rural Indonesia for over a year, stepping outside and coming back in again, had not only clarified how I’ve grown in several ways to become exponentially more patient, appreciative, confident and forevermore curious — but it also confirmed my own personal values and perspectives which have fundamentally led me to feel quite content about the pace and direction in which my life is currently going, all completely under my own control. Now that’s a good feeling.
Khawp jai, Laos, sampai jumpa lagi!Special thanks to Joe for bringing his GoPro, strapping it to his head like a total falang and capturing hundreds of amazing shots and videos that serve as proof that we’re not just making up this inconceivably fun festival. That’s a true swagleman, people.
Oh yeah, and then on the way out of Laos, I ended up missing two of my connecting flights back, one of which left me alone, stranded, and broke in Bangkok. Not fun. Read about that adventure nightmare here.