Village kids share lao hai during an annual festival honoring the spirits in Sophoon, Laos
Sabaidee Pimai! Happy Lao New Year (and Khmer and Thai and Burmese and, and, and…) Much of Southeast Asia is sweating and celebrating in this hottest, most festive of seasons. Here in Laos, it’s drinking time. In the northern villages, it’s lao hai time.
Lao hai is fermented rice wine, the elixir of choice in rural lands, especially on holidays. It’s sweet on the intake (Jerry thinks it tastes like Sprite) but harsh on the uptake—with a quick kick to the skull. It’s a communal affair, drunk through long, curved bamboo straws that stretch inside one giant jar of frothy, bubbling alcohol with a powerful scent. When a party happens (as it did above–pig boil in the forest, an annual shindig honoring the local spirits) each player takes a turn at the straw. Elders and honored guests are first in line, followed by the younger generations. There’s no such thing as a drinking age in rural Laos; every man and child had his swig (yes his–I was the only female aside from a few giggly little girls).
No offense to my village friends, but I’m more than a big squeamish about lao hai. It’s not the alcohol, but the water routinely poured atop the jar that has me scared. The water in this case came straight from the river, poured from an old plastic bucket, which had first been used to transport the blood and intestines of the slaughtered pig. When the elders called me to the front line, I politely declined and made motions to indicate that a delicate woman such as I couldn’t possibly handle the strong man’s lao hai.
Jerry drank. Just a few sips (delicious, he said) before the water had time to reach his straw (and before the straws had been passed among so many lips). I stuck to the other alcohol on offer, lao lao, a wicked moonshine served in tiny blue cups. One sip set my insides on fire.