Mekong Memories

Donna Russett

© Copyright 2004 by Donna Russett

Photo of the water splashing festival.
It had taken two weary days of seemingly 
endless bus travel over winding mountain 
roads and across lush valleys to make my 
way to Xishuangbanna, in Southwest 
China, home to the famous Water 
Splashing Festival.   I was too excited to 
sleep that night – I had heard so many 
wonderful things about the Festival!

Photo of the dragon boat race.

The next day I set off early to explore the town. The sun-baked dirt roads were lined with tall graceful palms, with
lots of lush tropical vegetation and brightly coloured flowers filling in the gaps. As far as the eye could see, an endless stream of people converged upon the rice paddies on foot, bicycle, and oxcart to join the festivities. Young monks dressed in bright saffron robes roamed the streets, smoking furiously. Children danced in and out of the buildings, laughing and squealing with excitement. There was a air of anticipation as people arrived to celebrate the festival.

The diminutive Dai women, dressed in their best finery, gathered in groups on the sidewalk; the streets were ablaze with brilliant colours as they gracefully twirled hand-painted silk parasols over one shoulder while they chatted with each other. The women were strikingly beautiful with their smooth golden skin, high cheekbones, small noses, and jet black hair pulled back from their high foreheads into buns secured with brightly coloured flowers.

I wandered along the shore of Mekong River where the Dragon Boat Races would take place later that day. Even in dry season this river was wide and had a strong current; the water was red and muddy looking. In full flow the river is filled with large freighters that have made their way from the ocean but that day the river had been cleared of all vessels in anticipation of the races to come. I murmured the words, "Mekong River...", over and over; there was something magical in hearing the name spoken out loud.

In the village I spotted a miniature version of a Burmese temple, the glitter of silver paint on the minarets announcing recent attempts at restoration. Upon closer examination however, I was dismayed to see that it was poor imitation of the original with roughly painted murals on the outside walls -- definitely not up to the standards I had seen elsewhere in China. Inside, the floors were unswept and the ever-smiling placid Buddha was slowly crumbling into dust; I walked away saddened at the apparent passing of an era.

On the way back from the village, I happened across the practice session for the Water Splashing Festival. The annual celebration honoured the courage of a young woman who was one of a group of women held captive by a mythological creature. In trying to lead an escape from the beast, she bravely stole its sword and cut off its head while it was asleep. But to her dismay, the head burst into flames as it rolled away, setting everything in its path afire. The town at the foot of the hill would be burned if it was not stopped. With great presence of mind, the young woman broke a large leaf from a nearby tree, ran to the river, filled the leaf with water, and threw it on the flaming head, thereby extinguishing the flames. The festival was a tribute to her brave deed; on this special day blessings were offered by sprinkling water on people.

In keeping with the tradition, smiling young women, were dipping bamboo fronds into basins of water and gently shaking them over the passersby in transitory blessing. Children in high spirits and not so quite so contained, were tossing cups of water at each other, racing about to avoid the showers and shrieking with laughter. As I got closer to the centre of town, the smiling women were replaced by men who were much more intent on dousing each other and the visitors rather than participating in a symbolic sprinkling. They had supplies of water piled beside them and were running up to their victims and tossing cups of water into faces and over heads. As the competition grew, basins of water were soon being tossed about in a frenzied free-for-all. Soon everyone was completely soaked, and revenge was the name of the game. Any available source of water -- ditches, taps, river--provided ammunition for a potential target. I was not immune and endured a thorough drenching, squelching water with every step as I returned to the guest house.

Changing into dry clothes, I hurried down to the river eager not to miss the Dragon Boat races. The viewing stands and dry flats of the riverbank flashed with colour, overflowing with spectators excitedly awaiting the competition.

Amid the pomp and ceremony provided by local musicians the teams of dragon boat racers solemnly paraded through the crowds down to the water’s edge. The men were dresssed in colourful loincloths with white towels wrapped around their heads turban-style; the women wore brilliantly coloured, long, wraparound skirts, topped by tight long-sleeved cropped blouses, their hair adorned with red hibiscus flowers. The crowds parted before them as they marched in a long snaking line down to the river's edge, proudly carrying their intricately painted paddles blades upright over their shoulders.

Each dragon boat was a work of art, no two the same. They were long and narrow, measuring about forty feet in length, and covered with beautifully painted designs. Long graceful dragon necks swooped up from the bows, topped by fierce heads pointing proudly into the sky.

The competition took place in pairs, each team of approximately forty participants, paddling their boat slowly and purposefully upstream against the current to the starting point, then abruptly swinging about at the sound of a gunshot, and racing back down the river in a flurry of orchestrated paddling to the beat of their drummer sitting amidship, rhythmically swinging his mallet against his barrel-shaped drum. Two "bouncers" in the front of the boat flung their bodies forward into the bow with each beat of the drum in a push-up type of movement, propelling the boat faster through the water.

At the conclusion of each race the members of the triumphant team ran up to the winners stand to receive their awards and a celebratory drink of liquor. Each person carefully poured a bit of the liquid on the counter as an offering to buddha, before downing the rest in a single eye-watering gulp.

The races finished with a magnificent display of fireworks. Gunpowder was poured into the ends of fifteen foot bamboo poles and the fuses were lit at five seconds intervals. They were two-stage rockets; just as one stage let go with a mighty bang about one hundred feet up, the second stage fired whizzing off in a new direction. Occasionally a rocket was tilting downwards when stage two let go, sending the projectile careening into the crowd. I finally understod why I saw so many eye patches in the crowd!

After the races the crowds moved into the park to enjoy the afternoon entertainment. These were familiar games such as a fishpond, bean bag throw, and ring toss. The children raced about, squealing in pleasure as they chased each other from game to game. I was intrigued by a large swing hanging from a very tall tree branch; two beautiful young women dressed in brightly coloured long dresses, stepped from the front of the lineup to take their places on the swing, standing and facing each other. Slowly and gracefully they started to rhythmically pump the swing back and forth, higher and higher into the air. The noise of the crowd faded into the background as I gazed in fascination at the swing rising higher and higher until it seemed as if it might take wing and fly off into the sky, the women smiling serenely all the while. At last they stopped pumping and the pendulum reversed its direction, tracing smaller and smaller arcs, slowly returning them to earth until at last they were able to step back onto firm ground. Smiling calmly and linking hands, they glided gracefully off into the crowd, leaving me wondering if it had all been a dream.

As the sun dropped and darkness started to fall, the musicians brought out their instruments and started to play. Soon, a great circle of coupled dancers had formed; they laughed and shouted as they spun each other round and around in reckless abandon. The evening was building up to a climax.

That evening I witnessed a fantastic display of fireworks -- an experience as yet unequalled. Great long strings of bundled firecrackers hanging from the roofs of three storey buildings were lit, flashing and popping their way up the building for a full ten minutes in an ear-deafening roar! Gazing upward, I was showered with the residue of confetti-like wrappers. People wandered good-naturedly among the crowds holding glittering sparklers which sprayed flashing fingers of light into the night.

The evening culminated in the launching of three unmanned hot air balloons. At first, the silk balloons, (measuring twenty feet in diameter), lay limp on platforms suspended over small grass-fed fires. But as they slowly inflated, poked and prodded upright by men armed with long bamboo poles, their golden outer skins became glowing orbs in the darkness as they majestically rose to greet the crowds. When one was finally deemed ready, the ropes were released, sending it aloft with strings of firecrackers streaming behind, twirling and dancing as if trying to escape the gaping maw above. As the balloon gracefully rose skyward, the fireworks popped and whistled their way earthward, as if seeking the safety of the very ground that they had just left. I watched it drift far up into the sky until it was a mere pinprick of light, and then, finally, vanished. I imagined someone on the other side of the world believing it to be a falling star, making a wish on it....

It was a fitting climax to a most incredible day -- a memory that I would retrieve again and again, to relive and marvel at anew!

Donna Russett is a grandmother of four and an avid backpacker, collecting many colorful memories from around the world. Having "more nerve than brains" has led to many adventures--some more enjoyable than others! "I am a part of all I have met."

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