Lao New Year, 2599 lunar calendar. Battlefield, heritage city of “Luang Prabang”.
Pi Mai Laos as well as being a time of celebration and endless fun, it has also become synonymous with holiday, the celebration of Lao identity, the reinforcement of family bonds and an opportunity to reflect on the year ahead. Although the Lao new year is celebrated in throughout the country, nowhere hosts more ancient traditions than the heritage city of Luang Prabang. In times past, celebrations lasted for around three weeks as the entire population of the city indulged in an apparently endless round of ceremonies, rituals, games and processions. There is a colourful parade filled with a variety of traditional Lao costumes, music and dance, the procession of the sacred Prabang Buddha image and the Miss New Year beauty contest (only for virgins).
Water is shot through water guns or splashed from buckets and pans, creating and enormous water fight that’s impossible to avoid. Traditionally, you wish ‘Happy New Year’ (‘Sok Dii Pimai’) before pouring water over someones head – symbolizing the washing away of sins committed in the past year. In fact nobody really cares. First you get chased, then soaked with Mekong water and finally rubbed with baking powder or colors – followed in rare cases with the term “Happy New Year”.
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Glacier water trickles from the ice caps of Guozongmucha in the Tibetan Plateau, setting course to China’s Yunnan, having a quick stop in Myanmar, passing Laos and currently myself, continuing along the border with Thailand, making its way through the lenghts of Cambodia to finaly flowing after 4’350 kilometers into the delta near Vietnams capital Ho Chi Min. The Mekong – life vein of Southeast Asia. Mysteriously, just by hearing the name „Mekong“, my endorphins starts bubbling. And currently, there is much more to be excited about. One more day until the year 2559!
Rumor is that Luang Prabang sitting gently at the Mekong celebrates the Buddhist New Year festival “Pi Mai” in the most traditional way all around Asia. And anyway, the town of the historical kingdom Lan Xang with its Buddhist temples in the midst of french colonial buildings is certainly one of the “must sees” in Lao. The communist government is applying Luang Prabang as a magnificent, old temple city. “Yes, we have a story,” says the government website. “Therefore, we have a present and a future.” – Patriotic words from the same Communists who banished the last Laotian king Savang Vatthana in 1975 to the jungle. As a self-taught survivor, the monarch survived malaria several times, but died in the end lonely in a cave, while his wife and the two sons disappeared in re-education camp to knock stones. After a year, all three die Exhaustion. Since then, the name Savang Vatthana is a taboo and the memory of the Royal family prohibited.
The calm before the storm. I’m surprised, the first day of Pi Mai starts suspiciously civilized – foreign visitors enjoy baguette, beure et confiture surrounded by colonial architecture – little gifts of the french occupiers. Small children start arming themselves, the older ones stack up beer crates, while monks clean their temples. Barrels of Mekong water as well as speakers in the size of stonehenge are carried to strategic spots. I try to get the most alien looking and reliable water gun, which China’s toy engineers have previously designed. Finest technology, elegantly curved plastic, nasty shooting roars. Shortly after the water war begins, nobody is save any longer, no place to runaway, no spot to hide. Simply everyone gets wet – Babies, monks, elderly people, the egg seller, passing Tuktuk passengers, motorcyclists, even the beer-drinking police force. When exactly the Laotians (basically Southeast Asia) decided to turn the spiritual cleansing rituals into a nationwide water battle, no one seems to know anymore. That’s okay, I’m keen to join the battle and to splash everything moving. My favorite victims? Running children (they started first), the tourist pack trying to sneak by unnoticed and the Tuktuks delivering continuously new dry tourists. But also this gets boring too soon, so I decide to jump onto a pickup truck to join some locals roaming the alleys. This certainly multiplies the fun factor, because on a truck you’re more feared from the pedestrians. So far so good, we have enough water supply, beer, good hitmens and a little boy, who comments every eye shot with a diabolical laugher. However, those who ride the truck should also be aware of the consequences. In addition to the fun factor, the chances of getting splashed also multiplies. From hoses, water bowls, pan fat, paint powder, baking soda or beer. Somehow we left the town center, as we are on village tour, where not less people get splashed. Everyone joins in, even the elderly gentleman standing by himself on a rarely used dirtroad, waiting with his water hose for moving objects.
It’s no secret that the teens use the event as an excuse for getting drunk. Today, I check for Savahn, who eventually wanted to join me on the battlefield today. His boss excuses him, mentioning Savahn’s face is about to get stiched together again today after he fell into a tree when riding his motorcycle drunk the night before – Accident number 207 in the “Pi Mai Lao traffic accident statistics 2016 “. Like many Asians in his age, Savahn lacks the self-preservation gene, never wears a helmet but instead wastes his money on beer. I try to get over the sad story and jump into the trunk of Nalongkone’s rusty car. Every year the troop hammers their Citroen Deux Chevaux back together to roam the streets of Luang Prabang. I tick off the following from my bucket list: “Roaming through a cultural heritage of UNESCO on a discarded Mad Max vehicle, while drinking beer and firing Mekong water randomly on pedestrians”.
On the third day, the event starts to get repetitive somehow. Getting up, walking a meter, getting wet, splashing others wet, waiting for the clothes to dry, walking a meter, getting wet again (okay, this time with yellowish water). Thus, the cultural program offers a relief from getting bored. Many Laotians are on a traditional mission today. Dressed to impress, they are venturing to the temples in order to cleanse the buddha statues and to meditate. I meet Lanai who is busy visiting as much temples as possible together with her husband – „five temples of five idols are still missing, four they have already visited “ she explains. Apparently, there are a lot of sins to be washed away. I have been assured several times that the cleansing one Buddha is totally sufficient, only those who put quantity before quality, need to eliminate serious problems. „However“ As a great honor, “Phra Bang” is getting cleansed. The Buddha statue and namesake of the city came 650 years ago as a coronation gift from Angkor and will soon be taken out of the altar for presentation and cleansing.