I stepped off the bus and began to walk the streets of Savannakhet when SPLASH! I was soaked from head to toe. A local family ran towards me with a hose and buckets of water yelling SOK DEE PI MAI!
It was April 14 and the first day of Lao New Year. The buckets of water being thrown over me provided a cool relief from the 40 degree day and unlike many other who enter Laos over this time I was prepared to be soaked. And so I cleverly had all my belongings in waterproof bags when I arrived in Savannakhet!
New Years in April – yep you read that right! Laos and many other Buddhist nations celebrate the new year from April 14 – 16. This three day celebration holds immense significance to the local people and each day has a special meaning and procedure to follow. The first day is the last day of the old year and on this day everybody cleans our their homes and temples in preparation for the next year. It is also customary to wash the hands and feet of your elders at this time. The second day belongs neither to the old year or the new year and the final day celebrates the first day of the new year.
Throughout the entire week people return home to their villages of birth to celebrate with their families, basi ceremonies are held, monks attend many services to bless homes/workplaces etc and then the main street of each town in lined with pools and people for the big water fight!
Yes, as much as their is a lot of religious significance this is also the main time of year where local people can ‘let loose’. I have never seen so much Beer Lao being drank at all times of day. Throwing water over people is seen to be a blessing – everyone has just taken this idea to the extreme. People gather and fill up pools of water or have the hose running and every time a person, cyclist, motorbiker, car, dog, cat etc goes past everyone throws water on them! Kids and big kids run around with water guns and everyone is dressed in bright colors. It truly is a remarkable time of year to be in the area – as long as you’re prepared for it! Traveling over the new year can be difficult as most businesses are closed lucky I live here and was prepared!
Now with out further a-do I am going to let you live vicariously through me and give you a run down of my Laos New Year adventures.
We began celebrating the new year on April 8th at the shelter, why…why not! For this celebration we all shared a big lunch and then held a basi ceremony where speeches were made and cotton blessing bracelets were exchanged between everyone. After this it was water party time! After blessing our Shelter Mother we turned on the hose, pumped up the music and danced around for a few hours!
The second celebration came on April 12 – a staff celebration. We all met very early in the morning at the office where I was told we were having a special ceremony with three monks. The ceremony was very interesting. We all sat in front of the monks with our offering bowls & candles. An elder then chanted for a while and then we had to give our offerings to the monks. After this a monk threw water over us using leaves and we had to pour water into our blessing bowls. After this we were blessed with many bracelets by each of the monks and then the staff members also gave blessings to one another. At this time many elders also received money tied in the bracelets. Then it was time to let the monks eat alone and then they left and the drinking began! Yep it was 8am, we had just participated in a religious ceremony and I was being told to skull a cup of Beer Lao. Oh I love how Beer Lao is so ingrained in the national identity. We shared a massive feast, some more beer lao and then I was told it was time to ‘get ready’. What did they mean? I was ready! Apparently everyone else was not as then we were all given bright yellow t-shirts to wear, the ladies stripped off and changed into different skirts, make up came out and the hair went down! I let the ladies do my makeup but then two minutes later the hose came out and we were soaked! So much for the make up haha. More drinking, more eating, lots of dancing and crates on crates of beer lao! Now that’s a work celebration.
Pakse –> Savannakhet. For my new year I was heading 5 hours north to a border town where a friend of a friend lives, a bunch of people told me it was a nothing town but that didn’t deter me. I am glad it didn’t because I had such a fun time! The first evening I went for a quick stroll with a friend. Our stroll turned into a four hour party where we were stopped by numerous groups locals, given beer, covered in water and encouraged to dance! What a great introduction to the city.
The next day I got up early and went for a cycle around town – most things were closed, not surprising but also the streets were dead – where was everyone? I found out at about 1pm. In the morning everyone goes to the temple and has lunch with their family and so the action begins after lunch! I was staying two houses from the main road, I defiantly heard the action before I saw it – the music coming from each party was deafening. We decided to brave the main street to get amongst the action – boy oh boy was it a blast. The street was lined with pools, hoses and parties. Everyone is throwing water around, offering you beer and getting to to boogie down with them. The road is not closed off though so there are cars and motorbikes zooming all over the place also being soaked with water! It was incredible.
The next day I was invited to go to a local party a bit further out of town. This was much more relaxed than the main area and it was just friends sitting around drinking, eating, dancing and chatting. Of course there was also lots of water blessings. I am never going to go hungry or thirsty in Laos, the generosity of these people is overwhelming.
Laos New year – what a week. Western nations should really embrace this week long party idea!