Nang Sangkharn – Laos’ three day new year celebrations
Boun Pi Mai, or Lao New Year is a three-day celebration that takes place from the 14th of April until the 16th every year. During this period, there are many important cultural ceremonies that take place, with Nang Sangkarn – the annual traditional beauty pageant – being one of the absolute highlights. This centuries-old tradition involves hundreds of the most beautiful girls competing for their chance to represent the spirit of the New Year.
The pageant has its origins in an ancient Laotian myth centering around King Kabilaphom:
Kabilaphom, the legendary Heavenly King with a four-faced head, often asked people to solve riddles. If they provided the wrong answer, he would have them beheaded. One day, he asked a particularly wise young man to solve a complex riddle within seven days. Feeling confident in the difficulty of the task, Kabilaphom stated that he would forfeit both his own head and his Kingdom if the young man were successful. On the seventh day, the young man solved the riddle and Kabilaphom subsequently ordered his seven daughters to proffer his head to the wise man. However, because Kabilaphom possessed such great powers, severing his four-faced head would be a catalyst for disaster. If his head fell to the ground, the earth would burn. If it were submerged in water, oceans and rivers would boil. If thrown into the air, tornadoes would destroy the earth. To avoid such devastation, Kabilaphom instructed the young man to present his head to his daughters to keep deep inside the earth. In a demonstration of respect, however, Kabilaphom’s head had to be paraded on a sacred silver receptacle in an annual procession to prevent the occurrence of natural disasters.*
This myth has been re-enacted for centuries as part of the New Year festivities. The seven daughters are made up of Nang Sangkhan (the new year beauty queen) along with her 6 sisters (the pageant runners-up), who parade king Kabilaphom’s severed head around “centers” or structures that represent Mount Sumeru (i.e. temples, villages, sand stupas, etc). This procession is quite the spectacle in itself.
Visiting Luang Prabang during Boun Pi Mai is truly a once in a lifetime experience. Yes, you will certainly get wet and it might be a bit hotter than in other months, but it is also a time when you will see the Laotian people at their happiest! Market fairs and big parades are organized during the 3 days festivities, sand stupas are built by the locals for good luck and the whole town just feels a bit more vibrant. For our clients wishing to participate in costume, we can even organize this as well.
For more information about Lao New Year, contact Khiri Travel Laos on [email protected].