Water for Worship and Play During Lao New Year
Water is a precious commodity to a quarter of the population in Laos that does not have running water. Economically, water is a valuable natural resource as Laos attempts to build enormous dam projects to export electricity to its more developed neighbors. Water is also essential to their food supply for fishing and to sustain their rice paddies and agriculture. It goes without saying that the importance of water is celebrated in their culture, most notably during the Lao New Year, Boun Pii Mai, commonly known as the Water Festival.
During the New Year celebrations, water is used for cleaning the house as well as for Buddhist rituals. For blessing the monks and washing the Buddha images, each house prepares water with their own signature fragrance using special flowers, perfumes and herbs. Pleasing smells greet worshipers at the temples.
Since Boun Pii Mai weather is the hottest of the year, everyone also loves using water to throw on each other, stay cool and enjoy some friendly revelry. Pii Mai is the biggest holiday of the year and takes place from 14-16 April. However, Lao wouldn’t be Lao if the majority of people didn’t add at least three days before and three days after the official dates to fully enjoy this special time of year.
Lao people take the New Year’s celebrations just as westerners– as an opportunity to go on vacation, visit their relatives or just use the time off from everyday routines to reflect on the past and to plan on the upcoming year. During the day, almost everyone is worshiping at the temples to pray for a healthier and happier life in the upcoming year. In the evening, people of all age groups also gather at the local wat or temple for entertainment.
The first day of the holiday or sangkhan luang is all about clearing out unwanted remains of the previous year. Perfumed water and flowers are prepared for the upcoming processions to the temple. The second day is reserved for celebration. Called sangkhan nao, it is a day of rest for visiting relatives and friends, taking a fun outing or joining the popular water throwing activities. The third day or sangkhan kheun Pii Mai marks the beginning of the New Year and is reserved as an auspicious occasion to visit the wat and make offerings and visit with family and friends.
Here are the highlights of Pi Mai celebrations around Laos:
Vientiane features thousands of sand stupas decorated with flowers, banners and offerings all along the sandy banks of the Mekong. They are designed to stop evil spirits from passing into the new year. Visit the National Museum to see authentic dance performances and costumes of the various Lao ethnic groups.
Luang Prabang’s special celebration is the procession of the Prabang Buddha, the sacred image for which the town is named. After this lively and colorful parade, the image is washed and worshipped by hundreds of monks and ordinary people.
There is also the crowning of Miss Lao New Year in Luang Prabang. Chosen from seven contestants that represent the daughters of Laos’ King Kabinlaphrom, these young women have competed in beauty contests all over the country. The newly selected beauty queen floats down the river on a decorated boat.
Visitors to these various celebrations can offer good wishes by saying “Sabaidee Pii Mai.” Before splashing, squirting or throwing water on other partiers, it is customary to use this saying to symbolize washing away the sins of the previous year. Your travelers should be prepared to get soaking wet and should take care to protect anything of value that is not waterproof (such as cell phones)!
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