Introduction to 'Pi Mai Aka Songkran'
Celebrating the New Year is not just the celebration for the day and is not just limited to having good times with friends and family. All around Asia, there have been various calendars followed and hence there are various dates on which New Year is celebrated in the Asian countries. Each Asian country has its own way of celebrating the coming of a new year and promising to make the best out of that year. Some countries celebrate for just a day while some have a few more days dedicated to the celebration of the New Year.
When does 'Pi Mai Aka Songkran' occurs?
In Laos, the Pi Mai is celebrated from the 14th to the 16th of April. This, being the hottest time of the year and marking the coming of the monsoon season, the Lao are very excited to celebrate this festival. The Lao community in different parts of the world also engages in this three-day long celebration and they thoroughly enjoy themselves.
Since the festival is celebrated in the hottest months in Laos, water is a crucial part of the celebration and without a couple of splashes, the entire festival seems incomplete. This festival reminds the Lao community of the importance of water and how water will definitely benefit them because of the incoming monsoons and the agricultural cycle. Water is all over the country. Laos, being a country of the Buddhist faith, indulges as a collective in the cleaning of all the Buddha idols around the country. The idols are brought out and washed thoroughly with jasmine-scented water. Since the entire country has a public holiday for these three days, everybody gets into the festivities. So, after the idols and images of the Buddha are washed and cleaned, the citizens proceed to splash water on each other as an act of cleansing and purification in anticipation of the end of the dry season. The locals are really enthusiastic about the festival and get everyone involved in the splashing of water. So if you are going for the first time with camera equipment, a tip would be to keep it someplace safe.
The spread of Pi Mai
The festival is spread over three days and there is a reason for that. The first day is known as the Sangkhan Luang, is considered the last day of the old year. On this day, the Lao get their flowers, scented water and the Buddha idols ready for the next few days to come. They also clean their houses and the villages and basically keep everything ready to go. The second day, the Sangkhan Nao or "day of no day", is neither part of the old year nor of the New Year. So this is like a break from all the preparation for all the people. The third day, known as Sangkhan Kheun Pi Mai is the official start of the Lao New Year. Locals dress in their finest silk clothes and perform Tak Bat, the traditional offering of alms to Buddhist monks; then climb Mount Phousi to pray at the stupa at its summit.
All celebrations, big and small
On the day of the New Year, there is a ritual where people make Buddha idols and little stupas out of sand and then they worship those with scented water and flowers. At family gatherings later in the day, locals hold baci ceremonies for good health, and beg senior family members for forgiveness.
The Nang Sangkhan is a beauty pageant which is known as the Miss New Year and a lot of young women across the country take part in this very event that is anticipated by all of Laos. This event proves to be a spot for showcasing the country’s talent and has become a popular event over the years. The Nang Sangkhan tradition derives from the myth of Phaya Kabinlaphom and his seven daughters. Kabinlaphom was a four-faced demigod who foresaw his demise by decapitation – he decreed that his daughters would take turns riding an animal to the cave where his head would be kept and sprinkle it with fragrant water. And hence, the beauty pageant also takes pride of place in the procession, borne aloft an animal-shaped float, bearing a four-faced effigy head in turn.
The elephant processions also count as an important ornament to the celebration. Colourfully-garbed pachyderms guided by mahouts in full costume kick off the first day of the New Year festivities: an Elephant procession (Chang hieng koei) will wind its way from Wat Mai to Wat Xiengthong. The elephants are treated well and they are decked up for the procession which is a very important part of Pi Mai.
The Luang Prabang, which is a world heritage site declared by the UNESCO has a night fair and market which also hosts a bunch of traditional performances. Usually, these markets sell textiles and other such goods and hence garner a lot of attraction from the tourists and the locals as well. It is an opportunity for people to shop together with their families and bond along the way.
At the Hat Muang Khoun sandbar located in Chomphet District across the river from Luang Prabang, locals build sand stupas called toppathatsay. These stupas are made out of the sand and are decorated with hand-painted flags and flowers of all sorts. After the stupas are worshipped the locals proceed to sprinkle water on one another and then enjoy the festival. The locals believe that these sand stupas prevent evil spirits from passing over from the previous year into the new one.
At Wat Mai, a gilded statue of the Buddha known as the Pha Bang 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. This is an interesting procession as the entire country gets into it and people from all walks of life join into the experience.
So, all in all, celebrating Pi Mai in Laos is a wonderful experience as it is a public holiday and all the families get into the festive spirit. The lively and colourful processions and the spraying of water make it a memorable experience for everyone who visits Laos during this time of the year. Also, the heat and all is forgotten during the heat of these events as the locals have a lot of fun planning and celebrating together.