Tag Archives: Lao New Year

Pi Mai Redux

Last month, the country shut down to celebrate the Lao holiday to end all holidays, Pi Mai Lao, or Lao New Year.  Time must be flying here, since I feel like I just celebrated the new year…but wait…I did!

Since last Lao New Year, I have actually celebrated 4 new years, so no wonder time seems to be passing so quickly!  Last April, my friends visited and we celebrated the Buddhist year 2555 with the classic Lao water festival celebrations, which I detailed culturally, and festivity-wise in previous posts.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

A girl's traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

A girl’s traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

Just when the year was starting to feel long, it was time for Hmong New Year in December, when I visited Phonsavane and Nonghet District in Xieng Khouang Province just in time for the colorful cultural parties.  With this week of feasting on plain rice and drinking lao lao out of gasoline containers barely behind me, it was suddenly time for the international New Year.

I rang in 2013 with my friends Elle (who was actually present for the 2555 celebration as well) and Ilse in Bangkok, with Mexican food, VWs-turned-bars, and a rooftop countdown that came a few minutes too late.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

A VW turned partymobile.

A VW turned partymobile.

Just when I thought I was done with new years for awhile, it was time for Chinese New Year/Tet and the Year of the Snake, and thanks to Vientiane’s large Vietnamese and Chinese population, storefronts hung lanterns and displayed red clothing, while drummers pounded out rhythms on the way to dragon shows with their teams.  I celebrated at a Lao-Vietnamese friend’s house with traditional table settings, incense and fireworks, and the less-traditional Pitbull soundtrack and Beerlao-induced dancing.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

And then…time for another Lao New Year!  Soon enough, a year had passed (or is it several years?) and last month we rang in the Buddhist Year 2556.  As it’s my third Lao New Year, and third Pi Mai blog post, I won’t bore with the details and description (look for that here and here).  Instead let these photos and your imagination take you to a sweltering saturated 3 days in which neons, florals, and Beerlao-yellow blend before your eyes, wigs, sunglasses, and caveman costumes get swapped from person to person, and there are no moments of silence.  By now, the city has long since cleaned up the water balloons and party debris, and I am waiting around for the next new year I can celebrate.  Any ideas?

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Safety first?

Safety first?

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

It's impossible to stay dry.

It’s impossible to stay dry.

 

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Pi Mai 2555

In April, weather in Vientiane changes from extremely warm to “oven breeze weather.”   From April to June, the only respite from the skin-singeing sunlight is the breeze you feel on your motorbike, which instead of a relief feels like…a gust of wind from the oven, minus the chocolate chip cookie smell.

Just another day.

Conveniently, just as the dry season barrenness and oven breeze extremity seem to be reaching their most unbearable peak, the holiday of Pi Mai Lao, or the Lao New Year, rolls around.  The Buddhist new year water festival is celebrated by different names in similar forms in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, and I had been looking forward to the festivities since last year.

Pi Mai party decor at VC

During Pi Mai, it is as if all of the rules and conventions are suspended.  All forms of business shut down, and the city dances in the streets.  People wear skimpier clothing, or matching neon t-shirts, or crazy accessories.  Cross-dressing is not uncommon.  Taps are turned on and water flows endlessly, much like the beer, which seemingly magically regenerates (along with peoples’ tolerance for drinking it).  Music throbs through the air, a festive mix of Lao traditional styles and pumping American top 40.  No drivers or pedestrians are safe from water attacks during the three day extravaganza.


Day 1
A neighborhood party at a Lao friend’s house.  All the required elements: laap and spring rolls, and people of all ages cutting loose.  The 5 year-olds wield the hose, the older generation pulls me onto the dance floor to sway to a cowbell-heavy Lao beat, and the fraternity-style antics of the younger crowd involve lipstick and flour and ripped tshirts.  The sun sets as the dancing has moved to the street, where empty Beerlao crates become stages, and suddenly being soaking wet begins to feel chilly.

Day 2
Elle, my oldest friend, who lives in Indonesia doing Peace Corps (I visited her there in March), arrives, along with Joe and Ben, two more of my oldest friends from high school.  Ben is currently backpacking and blogging his way through Southeast Asia, and kicked his trip off with Pi Mai, and Joe is just along for the ride for a week.  Minutes after settling them into my house, I take them out on the streets for a Lao style welcome.  What should be a 15 minute walk to my friends’ house nearby takes two hours, as all of the neighbors along the way pull us into their parties, for “just one” drink, or a taste of soup, or a dance with the middle-aged man wearing water balloon boobs, or ice down our shirts thanks to some mischievous children.

Day 3
The third day starts at another neighborhood lunchtime party, but then Elle, Joe, Ben and I head to the Mekong to check out the Beerlao Music Zone, the official dance spot in town.  It’s like a roadside celebration multiplied exponentially, with the hosts on stage constantly dousing the audience with water.

…And by Day 4 the city is quiet again.  Discarded plastic bags, the remnants of countless water fights, litter the streets, but otherwise life has gone completely back to normal.  The rules are back in place and society begins to function normally and politely once again.  Until next year.

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Picturing Pi Mai

Between the scanning and the original disposable camera, the quality isn’t excellent, but the colors and movement at least accurately portray the happy neon blur that is Pi Mai Lao in downtown Vientiane.

Taking a ride downtown with Sam--helmets required, of course.

Pulling over to get soaked at one of the many roadside parties.

Cruising past temples in the pickup truck.

Sprinkling water on the Buddha.

Alex recieving a bracelet from a monk.


Kids throwing plastic bags--duck!

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Pi Mai Lao: Party Like It’s 2554

As I rode in the old bus from my guesthouse to the airport in Yangon, monks processed, accepting alms, just around the corner from stadium stands of kids waving hoses around and dancing.  It was the first day of the Buddhist New Year celebrations that take place every April.  In Myanmar, it’s called Thinggyan, while in Thailand, where I passed through on my way back to Vientiane, it’s Songkran.  Cambodia has Chaul Chnam Thmey at the same time.  Here in Laos, where I returned just in time for the festivities it’s known as Pi Mai, or just literally New Year (pi=year, mai=new).

The holiday, often referred to overall as the “Water Festival,” happens at what is usually the hottest time of year in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia where it is celebrated.  At this time in mid-April, the weather is extremely hot, without the sporadic relief of the rainy season that comes next.  Laos celebrates the holiday for three days–the first is the last day of the old year, when people often clean their houses, the second is a middle day, belonging to no year, and the last is the first official day of the new year (this year it’s 2554).

In Laos, the festival traditionally involves visiting temples to make merit (by visiting monks, paying respect to Buddha statues, or freeing small animals), baci ceremonies, visiting relatives, and pouring water on one another to wash away sins and bad luck from the old year and to wish good luck for the new.  What many years ago probably began as respectfully and gently splashing water on one another (as some older people still do) is now a full-on, three-day water battle.  For Pi Mai, hoses are turned on 24/7, clothes don’t dry for 72 hours, and the Beerlao factory stockpiles a special warehouse of beer months in advance so the country doesn’t run out.  Pi Mai is serious business.

The buildup for Pi Mai had been slowly gaining momentum over the previous weeks.  Roadside clothing boutiques started displaying all types of obnoxious Hawaiian print shirts (which are inexplicably the Pi Mai uniform).  Students were getting antsy for the break–Pi Mai seems to be the almost unanimous favorite Lao holiday.  Every time I asked what students were doing for the upcoming break, they inevitably yelled “Lao New Year!  Play water!”  In Lao, what you do at Pi Mai is lin nam, or literally “play water.”  I struggled to figure out what to tell my students would be correct in English–“play with water”? “have water fights”?  Now having experienced it, it’s hard to say if there really is a phrase that can encompass what people do at Pi Mai.  So “play water” it is.

Sam, Karlee, and Sam in Pi Mai attire.

And play water we did.  I touched down back in VTE and a few hours later was sitting in my Australian friends’ yard in a massive kiddie pool that they had pre-purchased, wearing the requisite Hawaiian shirt that I’d picked up from a roadside shop.  This first day, we alternated hanging out in their yard and taking short motorbike tours around the neighborhood.  During Pi Mai, normally quiet, polite, reserved Lao people go crazy.  Outside every house and shop is a party, which trickles out into the street and more often than not involves obscenely loud music (with speakers that miraculously don’t get soaked), and people wearing crazy shirts and hats dancing on chairs and waving around hoses and bottles of beer.  It’s quite the spectacle.  Anyone who drives past is fair game, so you have to drive very slowly to enjoy the festivities, stopping in front of each house for them to spray you with the hose or pour a bucket of water down your back before continuing.

Day 2 of the holiday began at 7am, when obnoxious, loud Lao traditional music came blasting through the house.  The neighbor’s party had started, and nothing would be quiet for the rest of the day.  At night, we had a big barbecue to catch up with everyone from school, which at one point evolved into a water fight with some neighborhood kids in the street.  Their parents and grandparents dragged a few of us over to their neighboring house for some Beerlao, good luck bracelets, and of course more water.

Celebrating Pi Mai with some neighbors.

For the final day, we participated in perhaps the most quintessential of Pi Mai experiences: riding around in a pickup truck.  No one really leaves their houses during Pi Mai, except to go to temples, parties or to play water, so the roads are dominated by young people riding slowly around in the back of the ubiquitous Toyota pickups, waging a full-on mobile water battle across the city.  The backs of trucks are armed with water guns and buckets of water that are refilled often at roadside shops.  Five of us teachers rode around with some Lao friends, their friends and relatives, and kids for four long and exhausting hours.  At times, this experience felt like a true battle because we were painfully hit from all sides by water-filled bags thrown by children with shockingly strong arms.  Water balloons are not common here, so instead kids fill small plastic bags that are usually used to put sauces in at restaurants with water and food coloring, rubber-band them shut and then chuck them at passersby, hitting their target with maximum pain.  In addition to the bags, people throw dye, tapioca balls, and flour, so by the end of the day everyone was covered in a soggy, gelatinous, colorful paste.

Alex and I soaked and covered with flour after the truck ride.

While some of the riders were refilling buckets, other people in the truck would stop at the nearest temple, entering with normally inappropriate outfits of shorts and a soaking wet tshirt.  Women outside sold buckets of scented water, which is used to sprinkle on the any Buddha images around the temple grounds.  Water dripping from the Buddhas was collected to touch the faces of friends as a wish for good luck.

Turns out a Beerlao crate is perfect to rest a broken foot on.

After the whole day in the truck, we were all exhausted.  The MVP of Pi Mai award goes without question to my friend Karlee, however, who made it through three crazy and soaking wet days (including the truck ride) with a broken foot, which she had just broke a week earlier in Chiang Mai.  The next day, the streets were cleaned and life returned to normal, as if all of the insanity of the holiday hadn’t been real.  Hawaiian shirts were put away until next year.  Unfortunately all of the photos of water fights from the truck ride were taken on a disposable waterproof camera, and I don’t have digital copies yet.  I’ll post a belated set of Pi Mai photos whenever I get those.

Until then, sok dii pi mai der!  (Good luck in the new year!)

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