The Complete Guide to Bun Pi Mai, New Year in Laos

Locals splashing locals for Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang
Locals splashing locals for Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang. Nigel Killeen/Moment/Getty Images

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 take place every year from April 13 to 15, though festivities in major locales can last longer.

Bun Pi Mai in Wat Xiengthong, Luang Prabang.
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The Three Days of the Laos New Year

New Year in Laos activities center around acts of good deeds, water, sand, animals, and flowers that play a big part in the festivities. Each day of the holiday has a different significance and comes with different traditions.

  • Sangkhan Luang: The first day of Bun Pi Mai, is considered the last day of the old year. On this day, people clean their houses and villages and prepare water, perfume, and flowers for the days ahead.
  • Sangkhan Nao: Known as the "day of no day," the second 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.
  • 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. This is the time to 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.
Tourists splashing each other in Luang Prabang
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Bun Pi Mai Traditions

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. Religious followers also build sand stupas, or pagodas, 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.

Like Songkran in Thailand, people also get soaked during Bun Pi Mai—respectfully pouring water on monks and elders, and less reverently on each other. Foreigners are not excused from the fun—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 may feel both wet and doughy at the end of the holiday.

Nang Sangkhan procession, Luang Prabang, Laos
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Celebrating Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang

While Bun Pi Mai is celebrated throughout Laos, tourists in the capital of Vientiane or the city of Luang Prabang see the holiday at its most intense. In Vientiane, families make the rounds of the different temples to bathe the Buddha statues, with Wat Phra Kaew, the city's oldest temple, being the most popular. However, 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. Here, the festivities can last seven days, held in different places around the city.

Colorfully-garbed elephants guided by mahouts (professional elephant rider) in full costume kick off the first day of the New Year festivities, winding its way from Wat Mai to Wat Xiengthong. Also on the first day, there is the Hae Vor procession. Leaders of the town’s most notable Buddhist temples are carried in gilded, pagoda-shaped palanquins, 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.

Sand stupas in Chomphet District, Luang Prabang, Laos
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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, which 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 and decorate them with flowers and hand-painted flags while sprinkling 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) installed after a procession from the Royal Palace Museum. During the celebration, it's 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.

Pha Bang Procession, Bun Pi Mai, Luang Prabang
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Travel Tips

  • Bun Pi Mai is part of the 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 person on their 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.”