Although the Lao new year is celebrated in joyous spirit throughout the country, nowhere hosts more ancient traditions and colorful pageantry than the northern heritage city of Luang Prabang. Although officially a three day festival, the party always goes on for at least a week.
Officially the last day of the year, 13th April is traditionally a day of renewal, the main symbol of which is water. Buddha images are washed, temples repainted and homes cleaned from top to bottom. In the afternoon, young people pour water on the hands of their elders and ask for their blessing in the year ahead. Much like a New Year toast in western cultures, this is sometimes followed by a short speech from parents or grandparents. During the speech, elders give their blessing to their family, as well as highlighting important family events such as births, deaths or marriages.
The blessing of relatives, friends and even strangers with water continues throughout the festival. Traditionally, you wish someone ‘Happy New Year’ (‘Sok Dii Pimai’), before pouring water over their head, symbolizing the washing away of sins committed in the past year. These days, water is also shot through water guns or thrown from buckets and pans, creating and enormous water-fight that’s impossible to avoid.
For tourists, most of the highlights of Pimai Lao take place on the second day of festivities (14th April), known as ’the day of no day’; a day of transition that is neither part of the old nor the new year.
- See thousands of sand stupas on the banks of the Mekong, with their colorful banners and offerings, designed to stop evil spirits from passing into the new year (14th April).
- Don’t miss the procession of Prabang, one of Laos’ most celebrated Buddha images, which gave Luang Prabang its name in 1512 (‘Luang’ meaning great or oryal). The statue is carried in procession from the former Royal Palace to Vat Mai, followed by hundreds of monks in their bright orange shrouds. It’s when the statue is installed at Vat Mai that people can pour water on it, before collecting it as sacred water for blessing friends and family. On arrival at the temple, Prabang is placed in a sim (an alter similar to a chapel) outside the temple. There, he receives a final blessing from the alleged ancestors of the first Lao people.
- No Lao festival would be complete without its beauty contest, of which Nang Sangkhan (Miss New Year) is the most famous of all. The procession of the beauty queen is spectacular and hugely popular. From across the country teenage hopefuls sponsored by leading Lao brands, flock to Luang Prabang hoping to catch the eye of the judges. Traditionally, she must be a virgin and fifteen or over. The winner is announced on 11th April. The new Nang Sangkhan is then carried in procession on an elaborately decorated float (14th and 15th April).
- For an authentic display of traditional Lao music, dance and costume, head to the National Museum on 15th April. For music lovers, there’s also a range of instruments you probably never knew existed.
- During Pimai Lao the party goes on until late. But be prepared to get soaked. Flower is also added to the water, so expect to resemble a half-baked pizza before the end of the day!
Baci (15th April)
For many Lao people, the belief in kwan (spirits which inhabit the human body, as well as animals, plants and inanimate objects) are an important part of the Lao New Year. On the first day of the new year, with transition comes the risk of the kwan leaving the body, exposing them to any number of bad omens. To allow the kwan to return to the body, a ceremony known as a Baci or Soo Kwan is carried out.
First, offerings are made with participants sitting around a table. A chant led by an important figure in the village or family is then repeated collectively to call the kwan to return. Praticipants then tie white thread around each other’s wrists, symbolically binding the kwan to the body, while wishing them good fortune in the year ahead. The ceremony ends by eating a small meal together.
Tips for a great Pimai experience
1. Luang Prabang’s Pimai Lao celebrations are hugely popular, so book flights and accommodation well in advance.
2. You are certain to get wet during Pimai Lao. Always keep passports, mobile phones and other valuables in a waterproof container, or leave them somewhere safe.
3. During Laos’ hottest season, most welcome getting soaking wet. But if you know that’s something you wouldn’t enjoy, don’t plan to visit the middle of April. Otherwise, we’ll see you there!