Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pi Mai Lao- Add Water, Get Luck

Everyone in Luang Prabang will tell you that you have to spend Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in Luang Prabang. They get a huge smile and say "It is so fun! You must be here for the Lao New Year!" How could I resist that? I had nowhere that I needed to be so, Luang Prabang it was! I made reservations for a guesthouse before I had left. This way I knew I had a place and set the price.

 So, what is so special about Pi Mai?  it is the Lao New Year. The citizens of Laos remove Buddha images from the temples in order to clean them with flower-scented water, and then take to the streets to douse one another with water. Traditionally, sprinkling water on their elders and monks was done to forgive past sins and ask forgiveness as the new year begins. The water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes.  The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. (Yeah, Laos stories are a little gruesome!) The daughters would visit their father's head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness and good weather.
Everyone stops working in Laos to celebrate the New Year. The tourist Information Office gave me a list of activities that last 10 days. Yeah, 10 days! I was told only 3 of these days are official public holidays. Some of the restaurants have closed for the week to celebrate with family and friends. The holiday involves removing the Buddha statues from the home and washing them. There are stands decorated and set-up outside each temple to wash the Buddha. The Rose scented water is poured down a ceremonial waterway to drip on the Buddha.
However, the main activity for Pi Mai is throwing water on one another. Water is thrown to symbolize cleansing away the sins and dirt of the past year so one can enter a new year fresh, without baggage. It sounds sweet and beautiful. It isn't! This is an all out down-and-dirty water fight! But it is fun! And I loved it!! Everyone gets involved. Children, adults, grandparents and monks.
It is hot here and the water feels great! For an entire week, each time you leave your guesthouse, you will get wet. Water throwing starts at 9 am. They set-up by the roadside in front of homes, stores and restaurants. As I walked down the street on my first day, I noticed huge barrels, freezers and swimming pools filled with water. There was usually a hose just so you did not run out of water. Most people use water guns, small cups or buckets to throw the water. Every passerby gets soaked. It does not matter if you are a tourist, going to work, have a camera or laptop. You better have it in a waterproof bag because you are a target.

People will get in the beds of trucks and ride around throwing water at people on the street.
I laughed as I realized this would not go over well in America. We are far too uptight for a week of water fights! Relax and have some good childhood fun! The first thing I realized was the children were kept busy all day throwing water at people, motorbikes and cars. They loved it!

The week started off with friendly water thrown at me as the people wished me good luck for the new year. By day 2, the water fight escalated. Little kids had their technique down and loved to whip the water at you. This was all good. I don't melt with a little water. I was able to get some good photos. On day 3, I noticed the tone had really changed. Some of the people had added dye to the water. I realized it was time to leave the camera and bag at the guesthouse, change into dark clothes and just enjoy the festival. Thank goodness I did! The water fights were taking on a new level for the day of the parade. Limited photos of that, way too much water!
 I realized my best defense was to look like I could not fight back. So no water gun for me! Or so they thought! I was sneaky and bought a 1.5 L bottle of cold water. As I would see my attackers approach, I would remove the lid and keep slowly walking. They would run up and douse me and I would chase them down and pour cold water on them! Ha ha ha! They were shocked and laughed. Usually followed with a high five! Success in the sneaky attack! And a nice workout for the day! This was working fabulously! I had a little boy that decided to be my sidekick. It all went well until some innocent looking kids walked by and threw handfuls of flour on us as their sister threw water. I was a gooey white mess! All you could do was laugh and fight back. They loved the thrill of a farang willing to chase them down. This attack lasted a while and then I was out of water. I walked down the block and was pummeled by a group of Laos college students I had met previously.  I asked if I could be part of their group and get some water. They went so far as to fill my bottle up and start handing me glasses of beer! They do not allow you to turn down alcohol. It is considered rude so, I obliged and drank the BeerLao.  The party continued until the parade started. I looked around and young and old were enjoying the events. Western hip hop music and pop music was playing. Everyone was dancing. I laughed as I watched a grandmother "riding the pony" to Gangnam Style with her grandchildren!  

As the parade began, I thought the water throwing would cease. WRONG! It only escalated! Seems that everyone gets doused with water. Monks, Miss Luang Prabang, police officers, and people dressed in traditional outfits. I was soaked by the end of the parade but happy and ready for a New Year overflowing with luck! The students then invited me to their BBQ and Baci ceremony. They started by wrapping a white string around each of my wrists and saying a blessing. They blessed me for a year of love, peace and happiness on my right arm. On my left arm they blessed me with richness that is not measured in possessions. I am to wear these for 3 days and then untie the knots and remove them. I loved it! We ate laap, fried seaweed, sticky rice, chicken curry, Lao fish jerky (not my favorite) and spicy buffalo. It was followed with a coconut cookie. It was all delicious. I walked back to my guesthouse happy, joyful and wet. What an amazing and fun day! This was all repeated again the following day.

The next day the ceremony was held at the Wat's to officially wash the Luang Prabang Buddha. The townspeople dressed in traditional clothes and took silver bowls filled with water and flowers to pour over the Buddha. It was beautiful watching the people arrive and pay their respects. Afterwards, she and her mother and grandmother walked up to Mt Phousi (398 steps) to pay their respects to the monk that founded Luang Prabang. He built the first temple, Wat Phou in 1804.  The 398 step "stairway to heaven" takes you straight to the temple at the top, where there is a wonderful panorama of Luang Prabang and the Khan River. 

The Pi Mai festivities were winding down. No water was thrown and the Lao are back wearing their conservative clothes. I have had an amazing week here in Luang Prabang. I will stay here until the immigration office opens and allows me to extend my visa. I hope that is soon but nobody really knows. Ha ha! Until then, I wish peace and love for all of you!

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