Round-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker cops it in the neck in Northern Laos. And begs for more
"Sabaidee Pii Mai" (Happy New Year) chanted the woman as she stood behind my bamboo chair, pouring a glass of cold water down the back of my neck and tenderly patting my chest with her spare hand. The act was a friendly ritual to wash away the demons of the old year.
It was late on a sultry April afternoon in northern Laos. I had been cycling along a small, rural road heading towards the upper Mekong when a rotund woman beckoned me to a roadside New Year party. I was plied with food and drink for a few minutes before anyone asked me who I was, where I was from and what I was doing in their neck of the jungle. We ate from large communal plates of well-spiced pork fat with spinach and bamboo shoots. Inconveniently loud music thumped from a waist-high speaker. The age range around the table spanned from a lively six to a reserved but smiling 60.
No one spoke English but I understood that they wanted to know where I had come from so I produced a world map. On seeing it they lost interest in an answer to their question and became absorbed in a five-minute search for their own country. It seemed possible that some of them hadn't seen a world map before as many were all shocked at the relative enormity of neighbouring China.
There was an awkward moment when a toothless 51-year-old man (who looked 70) pointed at me and barked the word "falang". The word is commonly used in South-East Asia and means foreign (thought to be a bastardisation of the English due to Asian difficulties with pronunciation). However, it turned out that this crowd used it to mean French and they evidently weren't keen on their Gallic ex-colonisers. The momentarily tense mood dissolved when I assured them I'm from Ankit (England).
As the sun sagged in the sky, evening celebrations intensified in the village. People set off homemade fireworks, danced wildly to screechy Laotian music and drank plenty of laolao (a strong rice liquor). Every few minutes a different person would work their way around the table politely pouring water down the back of each neck.
It was getting dark when I wobbled back onto the road which was busy with swerving motorbikes, each carrying two or three singing drunks. I soon spotted a large Buddhist monastery with a steep corrugated iron roof. Asking if I could sleep there, my request was joyfully ignored and I was instead ushered to another party by several drunk monks with their sweat and booze sodden robes hanging around their waists.
Before I knew what was happening I was embarrassed to find myself thrust onto an open bamboo palanquin and paraded around the party at shoulder height by a cheering troop of topless monks. Cup after cup of throat-burning laolao was handed up to me. From this vantage point I could see a flower-bedecked golden statue of the Buddha, surrounded by candle bearing monks, being dipped (ceremonially, I presumed) in the nearby river.
The party grew wilder as the night grew darker. But, with a pounding head, I slipped away and rode a moonlit couple of miles before fumbling my tent up in a parched rice paddy. What I wouldn't have given for a refreshing cup of cold water to be poured down my neck at that point.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.
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