This major holiday is celebrated by nearly every Lao family. Lao New Year is commonly referred to as Pii Mai or Songkran. For most Lao people, this holiday is celebrated from April 14 to April 16. In some areas of Laos, the festival can go on for an entire week. For the standard three-day celebration, the first day of the festival is New Year’s Eve, and the last day marks the beginning of the new year. According to Lao traditions, the second day of the festival is in between the new and old years. For most people, Lao New Year is a time of joy and new beginnings.
Because of Laos’ rich history and Buddhist practices, Lao New Year is observed with many traditions and celebratory activities.
- Sand Decorations
To bring good fortune, Lao people often bring sand to temples for the monks. At the temples, the monks create stupas, or mounds of sand. These mounds of sand are decorated with patterns of flowers and intricate carvings. Lao families may also go to beaches to create their own stupas.
- Cleansing with Water
On the second day of Lao New Year, school-age children are expected to cleanse their homes and loved ones with water. After they douse their elders with water, students go to temples to cleanse monks. The cleansing water is often perfumed with flowers or cologne. According to traditional Lao beliefs, this cleansing with water promotes longevity and peace. After the elderly and monks are cleansed, the students have some fun by dousing their friends with water. Playful fights with water guns and balloons are also common. Along with water cleansing, homes are cleaned by families. This helps eliminate the clutter from the past year.
- Freedom to Animals
Since most Lao people are Theravada Buddhists, granting freedom to animals is a common practice during Lao New Year. In addition to freeing birds and other animals from cages, monks will pray for the release of captive humans.
- Flower Arrangements
Like many other holidays, decorations are an important aspect of Lao New Year. To show respect for Buddha, monks in Lao temples will decorate images and statues of Buddha with flowers. These flowers are always freshly picked and washed before they are placed on a representation of Buddha. This process is overseen by senior monks.
In the town of Luang Prabang, the Nansangkhan Beauty Pageant is a popular New Year event. This contest consists of seven female contestants who compete for the title of Miss Pii Mai Lao. Other areas of Laos also host beauty pageants during Lao New Year.
- Dancing and Music
In small towns and villages, communities gather to sing traditional songs. These songs are often accompanied by instrumental music and circle dances.
While most holidays in East and Southeast Asia are not oriented around food, Lao people enjoy hearty traditional meals on the final day of the festival. One of the most popular dishes consists of sticky rice with padaek. Padaek is fermented fish sauce that is commonly eaten by Lao families. This dish is usually served with roasted mushrooms. Fish stews are also popular in Laos during New Year celebrations.
One of the most commonly heard greetings during Lao New Year is sok di pai mai. It roughly translates into English as happy New Year.
Lao New Year is a vibrant holiday that allows the people of Laos to practice Buddhist traditions and enjoy some time off from work with friends and family members.