The Lao New Year called “Bpee Mai” is celebrated every year mostly around April 13 to April 16.
There are several variations of wishing people on the occasion of the Lao New Year with the most common expression being souksan van peemai which in English means “Happy Lao New Year.”
Bpee Mai is the most widely celebrated festival in Laos. The festival is also celebrated by Laotians in the United States of America, Canada, France, and Australia. When the Lao people first emigrated from southern China, New Year was celebrated on the first day of January. Since settling in mainland Southeast Asia the Lao have adopted the new years traditions of the Khmer and Mon-Phama people, based on the Indian calendar and traditions. New Year takes place in April, the hottest time of the year in Laos, which is also the start of the monsoon season in Laos when their crops grow. Lao New Year takes place at roughly the same time as Songkran in Thailand and Chaul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia.
New Year Traditions
The festival lasts for three days. The first of the three days 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,” which means that the second day doesn’t fall in the old year or the new year. The last day of the festival marks the magnificent New Year. The New Year is usually celebrated when the full moon is out or close to it.
Water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passersby. Students first respectfully pour water on their elders, then monks for blessings of long life and peace, and last of all they throw water at each other. The water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes. Some people prefer flowers in the water to give a pleasant smell, as well as adding cologne/perfume. The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. The daughters would visit their father’s head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness and good weather. Over the years another tradition has developed with Lao New Year: people will smear or throw cream (shaving cream or whipped cream) or white powder on each other during the celebrations.
Sand is brought to the temple grounds and is made into stupas or mounds, then decorated before being given to the monks as a way of making merit. There are two ways to make the sand stupas. One way is to go to the beach, and the other way is to bring sand to the wat, or pagoda. Sand stupas are decorated with flags, flowers, white lines, and splashed with perfumed water. Sand stupas symbolize the mountain, Phoukao Kailat, where King Kabinlaphom’s head was kept by his seven daughters.
Another way to make merit at this time is to set animals free. The Lao believe that even animals need to be free. The most commonly freed animals are tortoises, fish, crabs, birds, eels, and other small animals.
Flowers are gathered to decorate Buddha images. In the afternoons people collect fresh flowers. Senior monks take the younger monks to a garden filled with flowers, where they pick flowers and bring back to the wat to wash. People who didn’t participate in the flower picking bring baskets to wash the flowers so the flowers can shine with the Buddha statues.
There is an annual pageant in Luang Prabang to crown Miss Bpee Mai Lao (Miss Lao New Year). There are many beauty pageants in Laos, but Luang Prabang – the old capital – is widely known for its Nangsoukhane pageant. There are seven contestants, each one symbolizing one of King Kabinlaphom’s seven daughters.
Nights during New Year include traditional Lao music, mor-lam, and ram-wong (circle dancing). During the daytime almost everybody is at the temple worshipping, hoping to have a healthier and happier life in the new year. During the evening, people of all ages go to the wat for entertainment.
If you go to Laos during the New Year time, be prepared to get wet. Laotions are very friendly folks who don’t mean any harm.
If you are out driving or walking on the streets they will squirt you with water. Don’t fret, they mean no harm – they are not only wishing a long and healthy life for themselves, but they are also wishing the same for you. There are, however, some minor accidents during this time of the year. The roads can get pretty slippery, so be cautious of where you walk or drive.