Bun Pi Mai—one of the most important festivals and the start of the New Year in the Southeast Asian country of Laos—is a splashy good time for visitors, although a more gentle ordeal than its counterpart in Thailand (Songkran).
The Lao New Year takes place in the middle of the hot summer season. The celebrations in 2020 will take place from April 13–15, though festivities in major locales can last longer.
Three Days of the Laos New Year
New Year activities center around merit-making, and water, sand, animals, and flowers play a big part in the festivities.
Sangkhan Luang, the first day of Bun Pi Mai, is considered the last day of the old year. Lao clean their houses and villages, and prepare water, perfume, and flowers for the days ahead.
The second day, the Sangkhan Nao or "day of no day," is neither part of the old year nor of the coming year. It is a time for rest and fun, entailing activities such as visiting family and friends or taking a day trip.
Known as Sangkhan Kheun Pi Mai, the third day is the official start of the Lao New Year. Locals dress in their finest silk clothes and make offerings at the temple. Also, youth visit their parents, grandparents, and elders and rinse the elders’ hands with the water and ask for their blessings and forgiveness for any wrong behaviors in the past year. At family gatherings later in the day, community members hold spirit-enhancing baci ceremonies for luck and prosperity.
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 also build sand stupas and decorate these with flowers and string.
Monks provide the water and blessings for those flocking to each temple, along with white bai sri strings which are tied around devotees' wrists.
People also get soaked during Bun Pi Mai—respectfully pouring water on monks and elders, and less reverently on each other. Foreigners are not exempt from this treatment—if you're in Laos during the holiday, expect to be soaked by passing teenagers, using buckets of water, hoses, or high-pressure water guns.
Locals sometimes throw flour as well as water, so you’ll feel both wet and doughy at the end of the holiday.
Celebrating Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang
While Bun Pi Mai is celebrated throughout Laos, tourists at Vientiane or Luang Prabang see the holiday at its most intense. In Vientiane, families make the rounds of the different temples to bathe the Buddha statues, especially at Wat Phra Kaew, the city's oldest temple.
Luang Prabang, the former royal capital and a present-day UNESCO World Heritage site, is probably the best place to celebrate Bun Pi Mai in Laos. The festivities can last seven days, held in different places around the city.
An elaborate Hae Vor procession kicks off Sangkhan Luang. Leaders of the town’s most notable Buddhist temples ride in gilded, pagoda-shaped palanquins (vehicles without wheels), flanked by monks and other devotees, as watchers sprinkle water on the parade passing by.
The winner of that year’s Nang Sangkhan (Miss New Year) beauty pageant also joins the procession, borne aloft an animal-shaped float, bearing a four-faced effigy head.
Traditions for Nang Sangkhan come from the myth of Phaya Kabinlaphom, a four-faced demigod who foresaw his demise by decapitation—he decreed that his seven daughters would take turns riding an animal to the cave where his head would be kept and sprinkled with fragrant water.
Colorfully-garbed elephants guided by mahouts in full costume kick off the first day of the New Year festivities. The procession (Chang hieng koei) winds its way from Wat Mai to Wat Xiengthong.
Beyond the usual Luang Prabang Night Market, the town hosts several fairs throughout the Bun Pi Mai holiday. Look for a textile fair at Phanom craft village, a Lolat Market Fair on the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage town, and a temple fair on the grounds of That Luang that also include traditional performances.
At the Hat Muang Khoun sandbar located in Chomphet District across the river from Luang Prabang, locals build sand stupas called toppathatsay to make merit, decorate them with flowers and hand-painted flags, and sprinkle river water on each other. Locals believe these sand stupas prevent evil spirits from passing over from the previous year into the new one.
The Wat Mai temple has a gilded statue of the Buddha known as the Pha Bang (also spelled Prabang—it's the actual namesake of the city) 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.
Ceremonial waters are first poured by personifications of the Lao ancestors, two red-faced toothy heads called Grandfather and Grandmother Nyeu, and a lion-faced mascot named Sing Kaew Sing Kham.
Locals will also have the chance to pour water on the Pha Bang to make merit for the coming year. The New Year comes to its official end when the Pha Bang is brought back to the museum three days later.
Tips for Enjoying Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang
- Bun Pi Mai is part of peak tourist season in Laos, so if you want to be in Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng at that time, book at least two months in advance to get the dates you want.
- Consider it unavoidable: nearly everyone will get wet during Bun Pi Mai. 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.
- Stay merry, and use the traditional New Year greetings liberally—either sok di pi mai or sabaidi pi mai, both of which approximate “Happy New Year.”