Bun Pi Mai, the start of the New Year in Laos, is a splashy good time for visitors, although a decidedly more gentle ordeal than its same-day counterpart in Thailand (Songkran).
The Lao New Year takes place in the middle of the hot summer season, in April. The new year celebrations last three days. During the New Year, the Lao believe that the old spirit of Songkran leaves this plane, making way for a new one.
The first day, known as Maha Songkran, is considered the last day of the old year. Lao will clean their houses and villages on this day, and prepare water, perfume, and flowers for the days ahead.
The second day, the "day of no day", is neither part of the old year nor of the new year.
The third day, known as Wan Thaloeng Sok is the official start of the Lao New Year.
Read more about Laos' lively festivals. You can also find out more about how the Buddhist New Year is celebrated throughout Southeast Asia.
Getting Soaked in Bun Pi Mai
During the New Year, water plays a big part in the festivities - Lao bathe Buddha images in their local temples, pouring jasmine-scented water and flower petals on the sculptures.
The faithful will also build sand stupas and decorate these with flowers and string.
At each temple, monks will provide the water, as well as blessings for the devotees flocking to the temples and the white bai sri strings, which they will tie around devotees' wrists.
People also get soaked during Bun Pi Mai - people respectfully pour water on monks and elders, and less reverently on each other! Foreigners are not exempt from this treatment - if you're in Laos during Bun Pi Mai, do expect to be soaked by passing teenagers, who'll give you the wet treatment from buckets of water, hoses, or high-pressure water guns.
Read more about etiquette for visiting Buddhist temples, and on a related note, check out the Tak Bat almsgiving ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang
While Bun Pi Mai is celebrated throughout Laos, tourists should be at Vientiane or Luang Prabang to see the holiday at its most intense. In Vientiane, families make the rounds of the different temples to bathe the Buddha statues, especially the ones at Wat Phra Kaew, the city's oldest temple.
Luang Prabang is probably the best place to celebrate Bun Pi Mai in Laos, as it is the former royal capital and a present-day UNESCO World Heritage site. In Luang Prabang, the celebrations can stretch out to a full seven days, celebrated in different places around the city -
- At the Hat Muang Khoun sandbar located in the middle of the Mekong River, locals build sand stupas to make merit, decorate them with flowers and hand-painted flags, and sprinkle river water on each other.
- On Luang Prabang's main avenue, a costume parade is held on the feast's second day, proceeding from Wat Pha Mahathat to the main temple of Wat Xieng Thong.
- And at Wat Mai, a standing statue of the Buddha known as the Pha Bang (also spelled Prabang – it's the actual namesake of the city) is installed after a procession from the Royal Palace Museum, and bathed under a temporary pavilion through sluice pipes carved into the shape of legendary water serpents.
Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang finally comes to an end when the Pha Bang is brought back to its museum home, where it will stay till the next New Year.
Other events in Luang Prabang include an annual Nangsoukhane beauty pageant, nightly parties with traditional Lao music and circle dancing, and parades throughout the city. In some of these parades, three outlandishly-dressed figures play leading roles.
The two red-faced toothy heads are called Grandfather and Grandmother Nyeu, guardians of the environment and venerated by the people. The lion-headed figure is called Sing Kaew Sing Kham, and he may be an old-time King.
Celebrating Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang: Tips for Travelers
Bun Pi Mai is considered part of peak tourist season in Laos, so don't expect to make any bookings on the spur of the moment.
If you want to be in Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng during the Lao New Year, book at least two months in advance to get the dates you want.
Consider it unavoidable: you will get wet during Bun Pi Mai. (So will everybody else.) At the same time, there are certain locals you shouldn't throw water at – monks, elders, and maybe the occasional well-dressed woman on her way to an important New Year event! Choose your targets judiciously, but expect to be liberally soaked.