Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) is celebrated annually 14-16 April in what can best be described as a national water fight, which, as it falls during one of the hottest months of the year, is not a bad thing.
The 14th of April is the last day of the old year. It is a time to visit temples, pay respect and bless friends and family before the start of the new year. Many people visit a number of temples during the day, anointing Buddha images and hoping for a good start to the new 12-month cycle.
Traditionally, the water used to wash the Buddha images is considered blessed as it runs off the Buddha. It is collected and gently poured over loved ones to wash away the problems of the past. It also sets you up to the start the new year, clean and full of optimism. This tradition is still widely practiced, but has evolved into something of a boisterous water fight throughout the country. If you are in Laos during this time, be prepared to get wet!
The 15th of April is the second day of the celebrations, and is neither part of the old year nor part of the new year, but a transition period between the two. The animated water exchanges increase and the streets are lined with gaily dressed people partying, complete with water guns, hoses and face paint. Vientiane and LuangPrabang are the two best places to enjoy the New Year celebrations, with LuangPrabang hosting a parade through the town centre, sand-castle building on the banks of the Mekong, and a traditional beauty pageant
The 16th of April marks the last official day of the celebrations and the first day of the new year. Traditional bacci blessing ceremonies are held in family homes. Good luck and blessings are sought and given among friends and family for the upcoming year. The water throwing continues unabated, Beer Lao flows just as freely, there is music and dancing in the streets, merrily dressed locals, young and old, tourists and locals join in the most jubilant of Lao festivals. The new year is brought in with gusto.
The Lao New Year is a wet one – there is no avoiding this. Walking down the street you will have water poured over you by locals and tourists alike. This is often done with water guns and small buckets. But it is not uncommon to see pickup trucks laden with huge water-containers, hoses and dyed water bombs roaming the streets. If you venture out, make sure valuables such as phones, cameras and passports are left somewhere safe, or in waterproof bags.
Lao New Year is a thoroughly enjoyable Buddhist influenced experience. It is not found anywhere outside of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. They all celebrate new year in a similar fashion. The best way to experience it is to get involved – take a visit to a local temple, join in the fun and games, drink the wonderful Beer Lao, and throw water with the rest of them. If this sounds like something you would not enjoy, then it really is best to avoid visiting Laos at this time of year. The festival is all-encompassing, there is no avoiding it!