Pi Mai Lao – New Year in Laos

Across southeast Asia, many countries will be celebrating the New Year at the start of April. In The People’s Democratic Reublic of Laos, the key dates are 14-16th April, which mark the festival of ປີໃໝ່  (Pimai Lao or the Lao New Year). Here’s what to expect in one of the region’s less visited nations.

Pimai Lao sees ancient animist business as well as modern Buddhist celebrations. Courtesy Lao Tourism.

Pimai Lao sees ancient animist business as well as modern Buddhist celebrations. Courtesy Lao Tourism.

As well as being a time of celebration and endless water squirting – just like in next door Thailand – Laos’s Pimai Lao is different for its celebration of Lao culture and identity, as well as the reinforcement of family values and traditions. Although officially a three day festival, the party usually goes on for at least a week.
Calendared as the last day of the Lao year, 13th April is traditionally a day of renewal, the main symbol of which is cleansing water. Buddhas are washed, temples repainted and homes spring-cleaned. Younger people pour water on the hands of respected elders, and ask for their blessing in the year ahead. Families remember and celebrate  family events like births, deaths or marriages, and wish each other happy new year.

Thousands of sand stupas are built on the banks of the mighty Mekong river, all decorated with colourful flags and offerings, to help block evil spirits from passing into the new year on the next, first day of the New Year. In the capital Luang Prabang, a gilded procession celebrating the founding of the city in 1512 winds through the streets, followed by hundreds of monks in their bright orange robes.

And a massive beauty contest sees the new Nang Sangkhan (Miss New Year) chosen from a brightly coloured army of teenage entrants, all apparently virgins and at least 15 years old (by tradition). And lastly, there is a traditional music and dance festival that spills out of the National Museum onto the streets outside complete with traditional costume wearers galore.

There’s also some really ancient stuff going on - for many Lao people, the belief in kwan (animist spirits) is celebrated over the Lao New Year too. They believe the year’s changeover risks good kwan leaving their bodies, exposing them to bad omens. So they tie white thread around their other’s wrists, metaphorically tying their kwan to their physical body, and eat a celebratory meal with village leaders to lock everything in place.

The river banks are lined with stupas. Courtesy Lao Tourism.

The river banks are lined with stupas. Courtesy Lao Tourism.

But the most frequently remembered part of the festival is the sok dii pimai (Happy New Year) tradition of soaking everybody within range until you run out of water. Serious operators pour water over your head, symbolising a cleansing away of the last year’s problems, but most people just spray randomly using a super-soaker or a bucket. Major streets become an unavoidable mass water-fight. This comes to a peak on the second day known as ສງັ ຂານເນົາ or Sangkhan Nao (day of no day) the transition that is neither part of the old nor the new year.

Either way, you will get wet, see some stunning costumes, beautiful people, and smiling monks. Worth a visit.