Lao New Year – Pii Mai (ປີໃໝ່, [piː´māi]) – is the biggest festival in Laos and is celebrated extensively all over the country. This is the one time in the year that truly everybody in the country is looking forward to because it is the most important Lao holiday. Officially the festivities take place from April 14th to 16th. This period is a government holiday, and state offices are closed. However, the whole country seems to be in a party state for about two weeks in the second half of April, which also is the hottest month of the year and the start of the monsoon season.
(In contrast to other New Year celebrations, the Lao Buddhist New Year refers to the Sun calendar instead of the Moon calendar. This marks the change from the star constellation Fishes to Aries, which happens in April.)
The traditions differ in the various parts of Laos, but there are a few common features: A prominent one is that traditionally each day is celebrated differently. The first day is called “Sang khaan luan” or “Sang khaan pai” and marks the end of the old year. In the morning vendors sell the rest of the goods from the old year on big street markets. Furthermore, during the whole day people clean their homes. In the afternoon, there are processions. Buddha statues are taken to wooden pagodas, where water is ritually poured over them. For the watering, artfully carved wooden snakes are used.
The second day, called “Wan nau” (“day of no year”), does not belong to any year – neither the old nor the new one. On this day you travel from pagoda to pagoda with buckets of water to again pour on the Buddha statues. To achieve maximum luck and success for the next year, you should visit at least seven pagodas. The last day of Lao New Year, “Song khaan khün”, is the actual first day of the new year. Now, the Buddha statues are brought back to their residences and people get ready to resume their everyday lives.
All days have in common that people throw water at each other. Water has a cleansing effect, but also represents fertility – this is the driest time of the year in Laos. The ritual is to ensure that there is plenty of water for the upcoming rice cultivation season.1
The first day of celebrations opens with a Baci, for which a certain number of monks needs to be present – in our case it was nine. There are vast numbers of monks in Laos for many reasons. Temples have always offer(ed) education in the absence of schools, or of access to them. Another reason is that life in the temples saves people from poverty. Many Lao choose a temporary life in the temple if or when they are in need. Being a Buddhist monk is not a commitment for life, so monks can return to the secular world anytime.2
Monks are the most highly respected people, and accordingly there are certain rules about how you can(not) approach or address them. It is the tradition to donate home-cooked food, drinks, money, and flowers to them. Giving alms to the (mendicant) monks is an ongoing tradition and ritual in Laos and dates back to the 14th century.
In many places – e.g. Luang Prabang, a World Heritage sight which we visited for the Lao New Year celebrations – this ritual takes place every day, at 6 a.m. in the morning. The women get up at 4 a.m. to cook the food to offer to the monks at 6 a.m., thereby increasing their Buddhist merit, or karma. Many tourists also appear, some to pay their respect to the monks, others to take photos or soak in the special atmosphere. In Luang Prabang there is a huge number of monks because of the many temples there, and hundreds of them collect the alms from the women for their one meal they have per day. There are also poor children who will kneel down to the monks so they will share their food with them.3 It is a give-and-take because the monks receive alms from the people and in turn they call out for the spirit(s) for the people. The monks also then share their food and drink with the poor children who join the ceremony, so this is an occasion where everyone helps the other with a small donation.
The Baci ceremony consists of ritual events. Before the ceremony actually starts, mostly elderly women of the community are responsible for the preparation of the “paw kwan”, which is placed in the middle on a silver tray and consists of a cone made of banana leaves and is decorated with various flower trays with many white cotton threads hanging from it. The congregation will gather around it, as it has a central position. Alongside fruit and eggs and drinks are placed. Just before the ceremony actually begins, the younger people pay their respect to the elders (“somma”). The Baci (“keunt paw kwan”) starts with everybody touching the paw kwan while a monk chants a Buddhist mantra. They call for the spirit(s) to come back and inhabit the bodies of the people again for completeness and health. For this, the people for whom the Baci is celebrated (“pitee hiek kwan”) meanwhile hold one of the white threads in their folded hands. After that, the food and drinks are placed into their hands. Finally, the white threads hanging from the flower trays are used to tie around their wrists or other people’s wrists for good luck for the new year. The threads are white as this is the colour of purity, peace, good fortune, honesty, and warmth. In general, the thread is a ”lasting symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence”. As it is meant to be lasting, it is meant to be worn at least for 3 days or until it unties itself or falls off, as good luck could not arrive if the threads are cut. Last, but not least, everyone who attended the Baci shares a meal together.4
Water probably plays the most important role in celebrating Lao New Year. It is a symbol ”of religious purity, but also of goodwill among people”.5 Historically water represents blessing and cleansing from past mistakes. Therefore, you are considered lucky and blessed when someone pours water over you. This results in people arming up with water guns, buckets, and whatever else they can find to fill with water and throw at each other. Obviously, this is also a very welcome refreshment and actual relief in the heat. On top people put white flour (white being the colour of purity, peace, good fortune, honesty, and warmth), white cream, and lipstick on each others’ faces as a sign of beauty.
Before the splashing got out of hand at our LGTC celebration, first the persons in higher positions all sat down next to each other, putting their hands out for us to bless them with water and wish them all the best for the New Year. Unfortunately, we did not take any pictures of that (having put our mobiles away to keep them away from the water), but for a reference you can have a look at Jessica and Alyssa’s post from last year’s celebration at the school in Sikeud.
We were lucky enough to witness Lao New Year at two different popular places, i.e. Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and we are happy to share our snapshots with you. During these days everyone definitely is in a different state of mind. Even work and other responsibilities seem to be less important for two weeks around the Lao New Year. The whole country was in an exceptional state and you were nowhere safe from water being thrown at you. For example, walking down the crowded streets in Luang Prabang resulted in us having several buckets of water emptied over our heads all along the way. Even travelling in a tuk-tuk did not safeguard us from those well-wishing “attacks”. Everybody was in an exceedingly good mood with people cheering “happy, happy!” all the time. All in all we enjoyed that time of the year very much and are very grateful that we were lucky enough to be part of it.
Baci ceremony at LGTC
Celebration time at LGTC
Lao New Year in Luang Prabang
Lao New Year was a veritable experience! Not only the different time of year when it takes place but also the way in which it is celebrated is very different to the customs we know from Germany. Personally, we prefer the Lao version in which people chase the old year with all its mitakes away as well as the oppressive heat, just with the help of lots of water and even more good thoughts.
Text by T. Wedemeyer & S. Röhm
Photos by M. Keomixai, T. Wedemeyer & S. Röhm
Video by S. Röhm
1 Schultze, Michael (2013). Kulturschock Laos. Bielefeld: Reise KnowHow Verlag.
2 Heinke, Carsten (2018). “Moenche in Laos Wat Luang Tempel”. https://reisenexclusiv.com/moenche-in-laos-wat-luang-tempel/ (last accessed on 27.06.2018).
3 Khampradith, Pom Outama, Bounheng Inversin & Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith (2018). “The Baci Ceremony”. http://laoheritagefoundation.org/ceremonies/baci.jsp (last accessed on 26.06.2018).
4 Schultze, Michael (2013). Kulturschock Laos. Bielefeld: Reise KnowHow Verlag.
5 Water Festival. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Festival (last accessed on 27.06.2018).