Songkran (Pee Mai) in Laos

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The official festival lasts for three days from April 14 to April 16 (although celebrations can last more than a week in towns like Luang Prabang). The first day is the last day of the old year. Houses and villages are properly cleaned on the first day. Perfume, water and flowers are also prepared for the Lao New Year. The second day of the festival is the “day of no day”, a day that falls in neither the old year or the new year. The last day of the festival marks the start of the new year.

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History

These old traditions are still observed by people all over Laos but the spirit of Pee Mai is nonetheless changing, perhaps due to the influence of neighboring Thailand. Vivid reports on Vientiane television that show the Thai Songkran festivities have no doubt inspired Lao people to arm themselves with high-pressured super-soakers, hoses and buckets of ice water for the three-day festival. It’s almost enough to make one stay inside and play solitaire all day.

Laos new year via musicforeveryone-wordpress.com

The Songkran celebration is rich with symbolic traditions. Mornings begins with merit-making. Visiting local temples and offering food to the Buddhist monks is commonly practiced. On this specific occasion, performing water pouring on Buddha statues is considered an iconic ritual for this holiday. It represents purification and the washing away one’s sins and bad luck. As a festival of unity, people who have moved away usually return home to their loved ones and elders. As a way to show respect, younger people often practice water pouring over the palms of elders’ hands. Paying reverence to ancestors is also an important part of Songkran tradition.

The word “Songkran” comes from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti (Devanāgarī: संक्रांति), literally “astrological passage”, meaning transformation or change.

Activities

The holiday is known for its water festival which is mostly celebrated by young people. Major streets are closed for traffic, and are used as arenas for water fights. Celebrants, young and old, participate in this tradition by splashing water on each other. Traditional parades are held and in some venues “Miss Songkran” is crowned, where contestants are clothed in traditional Thai dress.

Monks in Vientiane Capital via Southern Cultures

Perfume, flowers and water are prepared for the Laos New Year. In temples all over the country, Buddha images are taken down from their permanent places and placed on special temporary easy-to-access places within the wat (temple) compounds so villagers can pour perfumed water on them. They often collect the water that runs off the Buddha and take it home to pour on family members, friends and relatives.

During the festival, Lao soldiers patrolled the streets of Vientiane and made sure that celebrations never got too out of hand. Several times during the weekend we saw officers confiscate containers of powder and high-pressure water hoses from overzealous celebrants. For the most part, though, tolerance reigned and most dousings were fairly gentle. Almost every time before we were ‘watered,’ the Lao instigators would apologize or politely request permission before soaking us.

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