Laos New Year
The Greatest Festival of the Year
Out of all the national holidays in Laos, the New Year Festival is the greatest of them all, and in parts of the U.S.A, Canada, France and Australia, where the number of Lao immigrants is relatively high, this festival is also well rooted. The New Year in Laos begins in the middle of April and the festival is celebrated for three or more days. This is also the beginning of the rainy period in the area and temperatures are very high.
Three Days of Celebration
The Laos New Year Festival is officially celebrated for three days, but in some places the party goes on for more than that. The first day of the festival symbolizes the last day of the past year, people clean their houses properly and a general cleaning of cities and villages also takes place. Flowers are used in excess to decorate doors, buildings, Buddha images and just about everything else. Perfume is also used generously; everything needs to be shiny, pretty and nicely smelling when the New Year begins.
The second day of the New Year Festival in Laos is known as “the day of no day”. This day doesn’t belong in neither the old year, or in the new. People spend most of this day in the temples.
The third day is officially the first day of the New Year and usually happens on the 15th of April.
Great festivals have many names
In Lao, the New Year Festival is called Pbeemai, or Pi Mai, but in more international contexts it’s better known as the Water Festival. Water plays a huge role for ringing in the New Year in most Southeast Asian countries; the water-splashing event is left out only in Cambodia.
In other parts of Southeast Asia, like in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, similar New Year Festivals take place but with different names. In Thailand they have the Songkran Festival, which is also a name sometimes used in Laos, in Cambodia they celebrate Chaul Chnam Thmey and in Myanmar the same festival is called Thingyan.
New Year Festival Traditions
The water party in Laos’s first stage is a gentle ceremony where Lao students gently pour water over the heads of the elders of the society. After that the Lao people pour water over the monks’ heads and at Buddha images. Finally the general water chaos starts, all the people on streets arms up with buckets full of scented water, ready to splash any random by passer. The water-splashing is a friendly act that supposedly cleanses you from sins and misdeeds, this way everyone can enter the New Year clean and innocent. The water that is used is perfumed with cologne and flowers and has a pleasant smell. A fairly new addition to this old tradition is to spray each other with white foams; anything from shaving foam to whipped cream.
Another important tradition during the Lao Water Festival is to bring sand to the temples to use for building sand stupas. These are generously decorated with colourful flowers and flags. The stupas in Laos represent the mountain of Phoukao Kailat where the seven daughters of king Kabinphaom kept his head. The symbolic stupas are given to the monks in exchange for their blessings of health and happiness.
There are more ways to better your karma during the Lao New Year Festival; one is to set animals free. Common animals to liberate include tortoises, crabs, birds and fish.
Flowers for the Buddha
Flowers are most present during the Water Festival in Laos. All Buddha images are decorated with fresh flowers, normally picked in the afternoons. Even the monks have a tradition around the flower picking. The elder monks show the young monks the way to the gardens where an abundance of different flowers are to be picked. After picking these flowers they wash them before they are used to decorate the Buddha images.
Miss Pbeemai Lao
There is a nationwide beauty pageant taking place during the Lao New Year, the winning girl gets the title Miss Pbeemai Lao and the pageant is set in the old capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. There are seven contestants in the beauty pageant, representing the seven daughters of the old king Kabinphoam.
Water Festival Entertainment
The Pbeemai Water Festival offers a whole lot of entertainment, like music concerts, dance shows and a variety of parades. During the days people spend a lot of time in the temples in order to collect merit before the New Year. At night the place to be is out in the streets, enjoying the grand variation of entertainment offered there.
Tips for the traveler
If you’re considering going to Laos in the middle of April to participate in this spectacular event, there are a few things good to be made aware of beforehand. First and foremost you have to be prepared to get wet, all electronic equipment should be tightly wrapped in plastic otherwise they will most surely get destroyed. It is also important to know that when someone pours water all over you, it is a gesture of kindness wishing you a long and happy life. Appropriate clothing for the Lao New Year Festival is a thin trouser, t-shirt, hat and flip-flops. A towel might also come in handy. It is really hot in Laos this time of year so the water is usually quite relieving.
If you want to wish someone Happy New Year in Lao you say “Soukdee Pbeemai!”.