When the dry season peaks and temperatures hit stifling heights, Laos gets ready to ring in their New Year with gusto and bucketsful of water.
Pii Mai (also known as Songkran) marks the sun’s passage from Pisces to Aries and this zodiac New Year is celebrated in Laos, Thailand and other parts of South East Asia. It is most well-known as the good natured and curious water festival just before the monsoon season in this part of the work. Seb and I happened to be in Laos’ most festive town – Luang Prabang – for this year’s celebrations. Here’s some advice we gathered to do it up right:
1. Go to Luang Prabang
A culmination of random circumstances (including our motorbike accident) left us in northern Laos for longer than expected, and we camped out for nearly a week in charming little Luang Prabang. We only found out about the Lao New Year a few days ahead of time, and decided to stick around to see the party. Good move! Although celebrations happen all over South East Asia (notably in Vientiane, Chiang Mai and Bangkok), Luang Prabang is crazy, colorful and chock full of Lao people visiting from neighboring provinces. The bite-sized city makes it easy to get in on the action.
2. Book accommodations ahead
The Pii Mai celebrations last almost a week long, and Luang Prabang is a prized destination for Lao people as well as travelers. Even with the surplus of hotels and guesthouses, we had to try about ten different locations before finally securing a room…for nearly double the normal price, making it one of our most expensive hotels. Find deals online and book ahead if possible.
3. Prepare to get soaked
Starting a few days ahead of the official commencement (around April 14th), little boys start patrolling the sidewalks with Super Soakers and teenagers cackle as they spray passers-by with borrowed garden hoses. By the time the party really gets going, it is full blown water fight mayhem. Despite pleading, yelling, running away or getting angry (all reactions we witnessed during the festivities), you will get soaked – and probably within the first 5 minutes leaving your hotel. The climax of the water fight usually hits around mid afternoon when the sun is at its hottest and the BeerLao has had sufficient time to loosen up the partygoers. Converted jeeps, tuk-tuks and pickup trucks packed so full of dancing, hooting youths that the tailgates are dragging, slowly make the loop around the old town. Kids dump buckets of water on anyone within reach (including monks, babies, the elderly) while folks wait on the sidewalk with hoses, water guns and 40 gallon trash cans to gaily splash oncoming vehicles. Just accept that you, and any of your belongings, will not stay dry. Small plastic pouches or professional maritime dry bags are sold on the street to protect valuables.
4. Prepare to get colorful
I was wearing a light orange shirt on the first day of the festivities when a group of teenagers staged a friendly assault with water guns. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I noticed my peach top was dripping green. Ughhhh. Although traditionally, only women were meant to respectfully douse the menfolk with perfumed water thereby symbolizing the cleansing and renewing of the new year, in recent years the tradition has taken on epic proportions and now includes the colorful addition of tinted water, paint and talcum powder. If you don’t plan on staying cloistered in your room or restaurant all day, make sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting filthy beyond retrieval.
5.Enjoy with the locals
At one point, the driver of an army jeep and his entourage pulled up next to us and beckoned us to join them for the informal “parade” of vehicles around town. We only hesitated for a second before climbing aboard. For a half-hour, we laughed and danced and became even more soaked by passing groups of water-throwers as we slowly advanced up the street. When we finally stopped, they invited us to share lunch in a small food stall with their families. We spent the afternoon trying to learn enough Lao phrases to converse, sharing rice baskets and attempting (unsuccessfully) to avoid drinking too much of the proffered Johnnie Walker Black Label. They were graciously inviting us to share this important and joyous occasion with them in their country, and we felt so grateful to spend a few hours among family.
6. Avoid traveling!
We should have known better, but we had to get to Thailand mid-fête because our visas were running out. One day 3 of Pii Mai, we needed to take the 12-hour night bus to Vientiane, near the border. Miraculously, there were still some transportation systems running during the festivities, but booking last minute meant we were stuck in the back of the bus next to the flapping toilet door all through the night. Having checked out of our hotel room in the morning, but not taking the bus until evening meant that we had to spend the whole day lamely avoiding the water fun – riding any kind of long-distanced transport in wet undies is plain miserable. Getting a tuk-tuk to the bus station was an adventure in and of itself (streets jammed with traffic, roads blocked for parades, and hundreds of partygoers trying to douse us as we drive past). Next time we’ll definitely stay put for the length of the celebrations and fully enjoy this unique holiday in one place. With any luck, there will be a next time.
Sok Dee Pii Mai! (Happy Lao New Year!)