FEATURE: Tradition aplenty over Lao New Year

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - It is out with the old and in with the new for many Lao people right now as preparations get underway for the annual fun and festivities of Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) over April 14-16.

Pi Mai is arguably the biggest and most important event of the year on the Buddhist calendar in Laos.  It is a time of celebration and fun, but also a time for family members to give and receive prayers and blessings for a fortuitous year ahead.

The many colourful traditions and rituals that are part of Pi Mai Lao make the three day event one of the most enjoyable and visually stunning expressions of national identity to be found anywhere in the world. 

Perhaps the oldest and most important of the Pi Mai traditions is the pouring of water on images of the Buddha in local temples.  Tradition says that receiving a blessing from a monk and splashing water on the Buddha image washes away all bad karmic energy, allowing the year ahead to be filled with happiness and success. 

Many Lao people believe that the number nine is a lucky number.  For this reason it is customary for many people to visit nine temples over the New Year period.   

Baci ceremonies are also an ancient custom which play a central part in Pi Mai Lao celebrations.  Typically, a monk will give a blessing during a Baci ceremony.  During Pi Mai Lao this is often followed by participants pouring water on each other and tying strings to each other’s wrists with expressions of good health and happiness for the year ahead. Children and young people are always encouraged to take part in this ritual.

Pi Mai Lao is celebrated by people across the nation, from the busiest of urban centres to the quietest of villages. It is a very special time for families in particular, and traffic on the major roads becomes heavier as people travel across the country to be with their loved ones.

There are some provincial differences in the way Pi Mai Lao is celebrated in the major capitals, but some ritual similarities have persisted for eons as communities come together in heartfelt solidarity and celebration.

One such custom is a procession through the streets featuring a local beauty who represents a princess of long ago called Nang Sangkhan (Miss Pi Mai). 

Nang Sangkhan sits on top of an animal which is symbolic of the coming year during the parade and people throw water and give her blessings as she passes.  This year the princess, who is the first daughter of King Kabinlaphom named  Thoungsathevi, will ride a mythical bird known as a khout.

Besides the beautiful princess, spectators of the Nang Nangkhan procession should also notice a four-faced figure being carried along behind. According to legend, this is the head of King Kabinlaphom who was decapitated after losing a bet with a wily sage. 

King Kabinlaphom had blood that was royal.  Legend has it that following his murder, if his blood flowed on the earth, a fire would consume the entire world. If his blood went into the air, all the oxygen would evaporate and all living things would die. If his blood entered the water, all the rivers and oceans would boil and dry out.

To avoid such a dreadful things occurring, the decapitated king who became a god summoned his seven daughters, each of whom represent the seven days of the week. Thoungsathevi is Sunday and she rides a mythical bird. Kholakhathevi is Monday, and she rides a tiger. Haksathevi is Tuesday and she rides a wild boar. Monthathevi is Wednesday and rides a donkey, Kilinithevi is Thursday and rides an elephant, and Kimithathevi is Friday and rides a water buffalo. The seventh daughter, Mahothonthevi, is Saturday and she rides a peacock. Every year these seven girls ride their animals to visit the decapitated head of their father which is kept in a cave.

On the first day of Pi Mai Lao, the daughter who represents that day will ride her animal to the cave and remove her father’s head. She will sprinkle it with clean water mixed in a bowl with frangipani flowers and perfume. On the last day of Pi Mai Lao, all the daughters form a procession to carry their father’s head back to the cave.

For many people, especially foreign visitors and guests, Pi Mai Lao is known for its watery theme and water fights that continue on the streets and in houses over the full three days of the holiday.  Not only is it a great way to cool off in the pre-monsoon tropical heat, the water throwing aspect of Pi Mai Lao is a great way for visitors to both give and receive the well wishes inherent in this fun custom.

Each of the three days of Pi Mai Lao has a different meaning. The first day is actually the last day of the old year.  Known as Sangkhan Luang, this is traditionally the time when houses are cleaned and old things are gotten rid of. The second day is Meu Nao.  This is a transition day and is often a time of preparing food and drinks for visiting families and friends expected the following day.  Day three is Sangkhan Kheun and is officially the first day of the New Year.

One other tradition of Pi Mai Lao is the annual prediction for the year ahead.  This year, the prediction is that there will be three Nagas who come to “lainam” (swim) in the Mekong River. It will rain 500 times throughout the year.  This includes 200 times in the city, 150 times in him ma phan (thick forest), 100 times in the rivers, and 50 other big rains around the rest of the world.  There will be sufficient water and more wind than usual.  Farmers will have good crops, and the Lao people will prosper.

Although a festive time for Lao people, Vientiane authorities are asking all citizens and guests to act responsibly and respect the regulations.  These include bans on the sale of fireworks, splashing dirty water, wearing provocative clothes and gambling.  It is not allowed to throw water at or from moving vehicles and swimming in unauthorised places can result in penalties.  Noise after midnight, violating traffic regulations, and venues serving alcohol after 11:30pm face heavy fines and loss of licences. Splashing on-duty policeman with water is also forbidden.

Many local businesses like the Lao Brewery Company sponsor the parades and other events that occur across the nation.  This year parades will be staged in Luang Prabang, Khammuan, Savannakhet and Champassak provinces.

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