I was in Laos from 7 to 16 April 2015 and my trip coincided with the Lao New Year known as “Pii May Lao” in Lao language. This year (2015), this important festival which represents rebirth and purification was celebrated from 14 to 16 April. Lao New Year takes place at the end of the hot dry season and the beginning of the monsoon season.
According to a popular Lao legend, a god of the sky by the name of Thao Kabinlaphrom lost a three-part riddle bet to a man by the name of Thammaban Khuman resulting him losing his life. He requested his seven daughters not to let his severed head touch the ground to prevent great destruction throughout the world. His head was kept at Mt. Sumeru and each daughter will take turn to cleanse it each year during Pii May. This story is reenacted during the Pii May celebration. One female will be chose to represent Nang Sangkhan, one of the seven daughters, to lead a procession while parading a replica of Thao Kabinlaphrom on a ceremonial tray called Khan.
In most parts of Laos, except for Luang Prabang where the festivities can go on for a week, the new year is a 3 days continuous event. Wanting to know more about the ritual, I went online to read about the preparations and the celebration of this important festival. Essentially, all the information are about the activities of these 3 days and even though the order of activities may be a bit jumbled up but they are all similar.
The first day is called Sangkhan Luang or the last day of the old year whereby devotees prepare and organize the celebration. The activities involved cleaning the house and preparing offerings to the Buddhist monks. The monks at the temple will remove Buddha statues from “Ceem,” “Salahongtham,” and the other buildings and place them in a small and colorful house. The statues will be there for 3 days to allow the devotees to pour water on them.
Devotees and monks will pour water mixed with flowers and perfumes onto the Buddha statues for blessings and good wishes. This ceremony is called Song Pha. The scented water from the ceremony, now a holy water, is taken home to wash away bad luck from the house and family members. Another way of earning merit and blessings is building mounds of sand in the temple grounds or by the river banks and decorating them with flowers, triangular flags and candles.
The second day of Pii May is called Sangkhan Nao, which is the day between the old year and the new year. This day neither is part of the old year nor part of the new year and therefore also know as “no day”. On this day, all work is forbidden and is declared a day of rest. Leisure activities such as throwing of water at friends and strangers alike, visiting relatives or just taking a short trip. During the night, people will dress their best and gather to dance in circles known as Lamvong. There will be abundance of food and drinks and the party will go on till late at night.
The current trend with the young people is gathering in groups and dress up in a theme. Music will be blaring and with huge quantity of water by their side, they will dance and splash water at passing vehicles and anyone that walk along their path.
I was very happy to be part of this joyous and lively celebration on 15 April 2015 in Vientiane. The moment I stepped out of my guesthouse, I was bombarded with sounds of rejoicing, water everywhere and people totally drenched. There wasn’t a dry road and I constantly had to hop over puddles of water. All the roads were jammed pack with vehicles carrying people to the wats as well as those with buckets of water ever ready to be thrown at anyone.
It wasn’t too long before I was also the happy victim of many people with their various water spewing gadgets. As it was an extremely hot day, the cool water was a refreshing welcome. No one is and should be offended when water is thrown on them. Why?! The splashing of water on others symbolizes a cleansing of all bad things including diseases and the welcoming of a thriving, healthy New Year. The more drenched one gets, they will receive greater luck and happiness. So… now you know. I noticed that some used coloured water and apparently to give the water a pleasant smell, cologne/perfumes are added other than flowers. Tip: Make sure that all your valuables such as camera, handphone and wallet are in a waterproof bag. If not, keep them in the safe in your hotel. They are guaranteed to get wet if they are on your body cos during Pii May, there will be constant blessing of water upon you … whether you are ready for it or not!
The Lao people, most of them dressed in their best, were out in full force and there were various activities in the wat. It was very obvious that this is a family celebration as I can see the very old to the very young in small groups. Chanting of monks, laughters of young children, chattering of older folks and the constant sound of splashing water was music to my ears. The followings are some of the things the devotees did when they were at the wats.
BLESSING THE BUDDHA STATUES
All devotees carried buckets of water scented with flowers to pour water on the buddha statues. Water seemed to be one of the key ingredients in this celebration. It is used for washing homes, blessing buddha statues and monks, blessing the elders of the family and last but not least, to bless others by throwing water at them. Some used small cups to scoop the water from the buckets and others used leaves to dip into the water and then sprinkled onto the statues. Water collected from the drenching of the statues are brought back to bless the family members.
Vendors placed their stalls strategically in front of the temples selling blessing paraphernalia such as buckets, scented water and flowers making it so convenient for locals and tourists alike to partake of this ritual.
BLESSING BY MONKS
One of the reasons the devotees go to the wats is to receive a blessing from the monks. Monks in their saffron coloured robes were strategically seated for their individual tasks. The monk will bless the devotees by chanting over them and tying an orange string onto their wrists. In return, devotee will place a small gift of monetary offering onto a vessel next to the monk.
During the celebration of the new year, devotees will give donations to the temples.
SETTING ANIMALS FREE
To earn merit during this traditional festival, the Lao people set free some animals such as birds, fish, tortoises and other small creatures. I saw some birds in big and small cages being sold in wats. A mother and her two daughters freed a bird from its small wooden cage.
DECORATING THE BUDDHA STATUES WITH FLOWERS
Flowers of all sizes and colours are gathered to decorate the buddha statues. In the afternoon, people will collect fresh flowers. Senior monks take the younger monks to a garden filled with flowers to pick the flowers and bring back to the wat to wash. People who didn’t participate in the flower-picking bring water to wash the flowers to make them brighter and shinier as they are placed with the statues.
FOOD FOOD FOOD
When there is a celebration, food is never too far away! Stalls sellling all kinds of yummy food were waiting to be devoured by hungry devotees. Business was brisk as there were thousands of devotees visiting the wats on this auspicious day.
I couldn’t resist this smiling face and bought a skewer of grilled sticky rice at a ridiculously cheap price. It was crunchy and provide a nice aromatic crunch …. a good choice indeed.
Thirsty? Need something to cool down? The choice is endless and for me, what better than a cup of homemade coconut ice-cream garnished with sticky rice and peanuts. Heavenly!
WHAT A GLORIOUS ENDING TO MY TRIP TO LAOS
Thus end my lovely experience of Pii May in Laos. I have learnt several ways to wish someone a happy Lao New Year. The most common expressions are sôk di pi mai, souksan van pi mai or sabaidi pimai, which can be translated into English as “Happy New Year”. It was a joyous celebration and I am glad that I was part of the smiling faces, blaring music, happy dancing people and water drenching ceremony. I will be back!!