Sok Dee Pii Mai

I was not a stranger to water festivals, I have celebrated Songkran in Bangkok, Thailand and have observed one every 24th of June in San Juan, Philippines to celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist; but the Pii Mai in Luang Prabang taught me that I obviously have not really experienced the celebration of the Lunar New Year like how it should be celebrated.

The Lao New Year, which usually happens from the 14th to 16th of April, are said to be the most important dates in the Lao calendar. It was a time of joviality, of reinforcing family bonds, of ruminating the Lao identity, and reflecting on what has come to pass and what is ahead. This festival is celebrated through out the country but it has been rumored that no other province can host the Pii Mai like the northern heritage city of Luang Prabang. I thought when I first heard of this that it was another exaggeration but I was glad to be proven wrong when we arrived in Luang Prabang on the 13th of April. What better way to celebrate the eve of the festival by being unknowingly splashed with water by the locals. We all thought we were safe within the confines of the tuktuk that we hailed from the bus station but the locals quickly negated that. Not everyone was happy with that kind of welcome; as for me,  it was exactly what I needed.

Luang Prabang Pii Mai

Water brigades in Luang Prabang!

Word of advice, Luang Prabang’s Pii Mai is very popular so please book your travel tickets and accommodations ahead. I booked our  reservations well in advance, a month ahead to be exact, just to be certain and it was a good move because those who did not make a reservation were faced with the dilemma of searching for non-existent vacancies (not to mention that rates were higher by then).

The first day of the festival is traditionally the Day of Renewal and water is highly symbolical. Like how new years are celebrated in other parts of the world, homes are cleaned from top to bottom as a way of starting the year with a clean slate; in addition, temples are repainted and Buddha images are washed.  While walking around the old town, my friend and I were lucky to have stumbled upon monks who were busy preparing for the festival and lucky me that these same monks consented to the snaps I asked permission for. None smiled for the camera but just went ahead doing what they were doing before we arrived which was perfect because I wanted to take candid photos of them at work.

monks preparing for pii mai

Monks at work.

According to my Laotian friend, during the first day, young people pour water on the hands of their elders and ask for their blessings. I was not able to witness this during my stay in Luang Prabang but I’m guessing that it is similar to how the Thais celebrate the new year. I remembered on the last Friday prior to the start of the Songkran holiday, all teachers were tasked to line up and pour water on the school principal’s hands. I didn’t understand what was happening (because no one explained it to me then) but after I knelt down in front of Kun Jiyap and bowed my head out of respect, she told me that her wish for me is to always be happy no matter where I went.

The blessings of friends, relatives, and visitors continues all through out the festival. Customarily, one would wish someone “Happy New Year’ first before pouring water over their heads to symbolize the washing away of the sins committed in the previous year; but these days, this custom was rarely seen as water was now shot through water pistols or thrown from buckets and pans by people onboard moving vehicles which eventually ended into an enormous water fight.  The screech of unknowing people being splashed with water, and the greeting “Sok dee Pii Mai” flying around from different directions were more than enough to stop you from being infuriated that you might just go back to your hotel dripping wet again. At some point, I just had to stop taking photos or else my camera will be as soaked as I was.

Like water, flour and sandalwood are also impossible to avoid. The locals will generously throw or wipe your face with one or both for good luck. We encountered this on our second day there which was supposed to be the “The Day of No Day.” They said that this was a day of transition, hence everyone needed to be marked since we need all the luck we can get, as we take the passage from the old to the new year.

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Taking refuge at That Phousi and enjoying the view of Luang Prabang at the peak. I was wet, covered with flour and sandalwood and I badly needed a breather from all that ‘partying’ in the city’s center.

It’s also during the second day when you will see hundreds of sand stupas on the banks of Mekong, with their colorful banners and offerings, with the prime objective of stopping evil spirits from passing into the new year.

sand stupas

On the last day of the festival, we were planning to visit the caves but our itinerary changed when we saw the procession of Prabang, one of Laos’ most celebrated Buddha images, thus explaining the town’s name ‘Luang (meaning great or royal) Prabang’ in 1512. The statue was being carried from the Royal Palace to Vat Mai and was followed by hundreds of monks in their bright orange shrouds. When the statue was installed in Vat Mai, people started pouring water on it. They then scooped the same water out, which was now believed to be sacred, for blessing family and friends. Again, during the procession, the monks were not exempted from the water pouring. As they were marching, the locals were pouring water on them and giving their blessings.

monks in procession

Prabang Procession.

There were also other people who were part of the procession; respectively, the representatives from different government sectors, the characters in the Ramayana performance which was supposed to happen later in the night, and the hugely popular candidates and winners of Nang Sangkhan or Miss New Year. It was said that teenage hopefuls from different parts of the country flock to Luang Prabang to win the title and that other than the age requirement of being fifteen or over, she must also be a virgin. I wonder, if this was indeed true, how the pageant officials were able to determine this. Did they ask the candidates if they were still a virgin or not? Was that noted in the application forms? Or was there some sort of physical test? Curious.

procession participants

After the parade, my friend decided to visit That Phousi and since I didn’t feel like going there, I followed the monks instead. It was a good thing I did because I was able to enjoy watching the Lao dragon dance. It was almost similar to the Chinese dragon dance, only at the end of the performance, the spectators were hosed down by one member of the Fire Department. Again, the mix of laughter and cheerful squeals filled the air which really made it so difficult to complain. How can you possibly complain when everyone is having so much fun?

dragon dance

We ended the third day by watching the Ramayana dance which featured authentic Lao music and costume at the National Museum. I have never in my life walked out of a performance before but I had to in this one because I was famished. We wrongly decided of securing our seats first and delaying dinner with the expectation that the show will start on time. We forgot that we were in Laos and they have their own versions of time here. The only benefit I got from waiting that long was earning new friends because they too were as anxious as I was, plus the humid weather was not helping at all.

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