“Pleeeeeeease, noooo”, I shout to the little kid with an almost resigning gesture. I am wearing my work clothes and it is still 3 days to go before the official Lao New Year is starting. The girl smiles at me, still holding the little bucket filled with water – and thankfully does not throw it at me as I drive past her on my motorbike.
The infamous and biggest festival of the year is just around the corner: Lao New Year.
Coming from a country where New Year is usually accompanied by freezing/icy/damp/grey/unfriendly weather and is usually celebrated from around 8 pm until the morning hours of the next day this was going to be a totally new experience. I had heard many stories about Pii mai (New Year) but in hindsight I have to say that it was so much bigger and crazier than I would have ever imagined.
This year New Year was from 14-16 April but in reality the parties, the water-throwing and the drinking started 3 days before and continued another 2-3 days.
The best way to describe pii mai is water, water, water. And water. During this week people everywhere in the country throw water at each other. And Luang Prabang is THE place to go for New Year, so the town is packed with people. The religious aspect of the festival is the washing away of wrongdoing and bad luck from the previous year to start the new year afresh.
The tiniest kids are fully equipped with their water guns or with buckets with are placed in front of the houses. Often the garden water hose does the job too. The most attractive targets are in the following sequence: 1) falangs 2) people on motorbikes 3) people on bicycles or on any moving vehicle 3) people who look like they don’t want to get wet. In the past years some new trends have evolved: some of the water that gets thrown on you is colored and you also occasionally get the full hand of flour thrown over your head. I therefore ventured to the main market, got the cheapest black t-shirt I could find, pulled out my torn jeans shorts from the back of my drawer and decided that that would be my outfit for the whole week. It was a good decision because especially the orange and red colored water doesn’t go well with white;(
It sounds a bit weird but the first day of New Year – in this case the 14th, is seen as the last day of the old year. The 15th is “the day of no day”, meaning neither old nor new year and the 16th was the first day of the New Year. On the 15th the big parade on the main street took place, a really fun and colorful event to watch. A huge line-up of different villages paraded on the main street with their traditional costumes, thousands of people watching the newly elected Miss Luang Prabang, the dancers, drummers and the long line-up of monks and novices.
The whole water-throwing is actually not only a nice and fun way (or excuse) to cool off but this actually derives from an old tradition. Water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks and novices. Young people first respectfully pour water (often scented and with fresh flowers) on their elders and ask for their blessings and forgiveness for any wrong‐doings in the past year, then they pour water on the monks feet or shoulders for blessings of long life and peace.
Another tradition I really enjoyed was building a sand stupa. To earn merit and to get blessings people build mounds of sand, usually on the river banks and temple grounds, which are then decorated with small triangular flags, flowers, money and candles. My friend Silvia from Vienna and I went to Wat Visoun, the oldest temple in Luang Prabang, where we participated in a long ceremony in the tempe compounds, led by the old Abbot and quite a few monks. We were the only falangs attending the ceremony and it was a very special atmosphere to see all the wonderfully decorated big sand stupas and the people dressed in their traditional clothing. That evening some of my friends and I went to the riverbank of the Mekong, equipped with incense sticks and candles and we build our own sand stupa and decorated it.
The beautiful (and incredibly wonderful smelling) white Frangipani flowers – called dogk champa in Lao – are collected during Lao New Year and play an important role in the worshipping of Buddha. This tree can be typically found in every temple compound. Monks and novices pick the delicate white flowers with a long stick because they grow high up on the tree. In the afternoons people collect the fresh flowers and in the evening they bring them – along with some perfume, a bowl, water, incense sticks and candles – to the temples to worship the Buddha. All women and girls wear Sinhs (the Lao skirts) and everyone (women, men and children) wear a scarf over their left shoulder. The ritual foresees that you pour water into a bowl, put some drops of perfume and the fresh Frangipani flowers into the water and kneel down in front of a Buddha statue. You then light a candle and place it next to the Buddha. You light 3 incense sticks, place them to your forehead, make a wish and prayer for the new year and then stick them in a bowl next to the Buddha. After that you bow down 3 times, take the bowl and climb up a few steps to the beautiful long wooden Naga (the big snake that was one of Buddhas protectors) which is functioning like a rainwater gutter. You pour the water in the back-end of the snake and a few after running through its belly the water comes out in the front of the snake and drips down on another Buddha statue. This ritual is called “washing the Buddha”. The more temples you visit and wash the Buddhas, the more good luck for the new year people hope for. During those days some of my friends and I visited about 9 temples, so I think I should have a good portion of luck this year!:) I really loved this ceremony, it was so peaceful, festive and wonderfully quiet (compared to the waterfights during that whole week).
Talking about water fights. On the second day we all ventured out to the busiest section of the main street with our big water pump guns and had 3 hours of the most serious water fight I have ever had (and most likely will have ever had) in my whole life. In our western countries such a frenzy is not imaginable (various love parades etc I have seen in my life before in Vienna resembled a kindergarden party compared to this one). Every 2 seconds you get the full load of water guns, water hoses or whole water buckets thrown on or at you – regardless if you are walking, driving a motorbike or sitting on the back of a truck or car. If you have your window rolled down in your car – bad luck. You get that full bucket thrown INTO your car just as well. And the funniest thing is that NOONE even thinks about complaining or trying to avoid those attacks. No escape unless you lock yourself up at home (which I think not one person did). So that afternoon we immersed in the Lao tradition a 100% and got wet. wet. wet.