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From April 14th to 16th, Laos celebrates Pii Mai, the beginning of the New Year. Celebrations last three days, with every day dedicated to different activities.
Buddhism being so important in Lao culture, all the traditions of Pii Mai revolve around merit-making, to gain a beneficial force that will protect the faithful in the future. Buddhists will make merits by taking care of the elderly, pouring scented water on their bodies, cleaning the houses and the villages, setting animals free, being generous and sharing food.
The coming of the New Year is an opportunity of renewal. Because of this, water is extremely important, and it is used to wish someone a Happy New Year and to wash Buddha images. April is the hottest month of the year, so throwing water at each other is also a fun occasion to find some refreshment.
Pii Mai in Laos is celebrated for three days. The first day is the last day of the old year, when people prepare everything they will need for the celebrations over the following days.
The second day is a “no day”, it is between the old and the new year. In big cities like Luang Prabang and Vientiane there are parades, beauty contests, and concerts.
The third day is when the Baci ceremony is held. Its purpose is to keep the good spirits inside the body and to generate good luck for the coming year.
To wish someone a “Happy New Year”, Lao say Sok Dii Pimai. People will usually pour water on you after saying these words, as a sign of respect and to wish you good luck.
This is a day of renewal; renewal that mostly comes through water. People will clean their houses and the villages, prepare the water and flowers for the celebrations of the following days, wash Buddha images, paint the temples, etc.
After all these tasks are done, the elderly give a brief speech, and young people will pour water on their heads to receive a blessing for the coming year.
The second day is the “no day”, since it belongs neither to the old nor to the new year. On this day, the elderly will incite young people not to sleep and be active; taking a nap or staying still will result in bad luck for the coming year.
Most of the highlights of the festival take place on this day. On the bank of Mekong River, thousands of stupas (a kind of temple) are built with sand to stop evil spirits from passing into the New Year. Young people are encouraged to go outside and pour water on the elders of the village to receive their blessing, and parades and beauty contests are held in major cities like Luang Prabang.
For many Laotian, kwan are an important part of Sonkran. Kwan are spirits that live within humans, animals, plants, and objects. With the coming of the New Year, kwan might leave the body and expose it to bad omens. To prevent this, the ceremony of Baci (or Soo Kwan) is carried out.
Participants will sit around a table and some offering will be made. An important figure of the village will start a chant that is repeated by everyone. The chant will call the kwan back. Everyone will have a white bracelet tied around their wrist, so that the kwan can be secured to the body. At the end of the ceremony, people will eat a shared meal.
On the evening of the first day of the new year, people will go to the temples (wat) to listen to the chants of the monks and to ask for forgiveness for their mistakes. Celebrations will end with a candlelight procession (vien tien) around the wat.
The Lao New Year is full of symbolical traditions cherished by all the locals. Most of those traditions are related to Buddhism, which is practiced by 67% of the population and deeply rooted in Lao culture.
Pii Mai is celebrated all over the country, but in the North region of Luang Prabang the celebrations are spectacular. Celebrations will last for almost a week and will see parades, beauty contests, concerts, and much more.
For religious people, the most important part of the celebration is the parade with the Prabang Buddha, carried around the town inside a golden house supported by two poles. Prabang (or Phra Bang) is the religious symbol of Laos, and represents the right to rule the country.
Leading the parade, you will see two red-faced mythical creatures, Pou Gneu and Gna Gneu (Granpa and Grandma) followed by hundreds of monks. At the end of the parade, the statue is placed at Vat May and will stay there for three days.
Another highlight of the celebration in Luang Prabang is the beauty contest, called Nang Sangkhane. There are seven contestants, each one representing one of the daughters of King Kabinlaphom.
There will be more processions and traditional performances in the evening.
Vientiane sees similar celebrations to those held in Luang Prabang.
The programme usually includes a Miss Vientiane beauty contest (held a few days before Pii Mai), a sandcastle building contest, art shows, and sport competitions and traditional music performances on the banks of Mekong River.
The biggest part is the parade of the Buddha images with spectators pouring perfumed water on them. Usually, the winner of the beauty contest parades along with the images and the Buddhist monks.
In the streets, there will be water fights conducted with water pistols, buckets, bottles, and so on. Pouring water on someone is a way to wish a Happy New Year. If you don’t want to get soaked, avoid the busiest streets full of young people throwing water at each other.
The celebration of Pii Mai comes from an old tradition of the Khmer and Mon-Burmese people of Laos. The new year celebrates the biggest astrological event of the year, when the sun enters the constellation of Aries.
This was influenced by the Hindu Calendar, based on the sidereal year (the movement of the sun relative to the stars). In ancient times, the sun's entry into Aries coincided with the equinox. Nowadays, the sun enters Aries around the 18 of April.
The legend says that the celebration for Pii Mai started when Thao Kabinlaphrom, a mythical king, was beheaded after losing a bet. If his severed head would have touched the ground, the world would have been destroyed. So, his seven daughters brought his head on Mount Sumeru.
Each Pii Mai, the daughters would take turns taking care of the head. Today, the story is still reenacted during the Pii Mai celebrations.
Visit Laos during the celebrations for Pii Mai, and you will get a closer look to what locals cherish, their traditions and customs. Visit Laos with Asia Highlights and get the best out of your experience. Our knowledgeable staff will provide you with 24-hour assistance and will craft the best itinerary for your trip.
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