Lao Pi Mai: Temples and traditions

Lao Pi Mai finished its watery, 3-day celebrations last Friday. As a falang who stayed in Vientiane over the Pi Mai holiday I found it really interesting, fun and full of great holiday spirit.

Each day we drove through the streets lined with tents of water throwers and kids submerged in blow up pools. Any and everyone threw water at passerbys via buckets, cups or garden hoses. Music blared, motorcyclists ducked, traffic crawled, and people flocked in and out of temples, everyone dressed in the brightest, most colourful flowery outfits they could find. We had our car drenched time and again while returning fire with our own water guns.

Contrary to popular Pi Mai opinion, a few food places were open, like Once Upon A Time cafe, the new pizzeria, Tysons, and Simuang minimart. So we weren't in much danger of starving.

I've written before about the huge significance of water in Laos; not only for the Mekong River, the lifeblood of the country but also for the rains and the wet season. Pi Mai heralds the beginning of the rainy season, bringing new life to the land, the growth of the rice crops, and also washing away the mistakes of the past year. So, the Laotians believe that the giving of water is a symbolic gesture of good luck.

Granted they take the giving of good luck to crazy heights on the streets of Vientiane.

It's a slightly more sedate though still very cheerful affair inside Laos' Buddhist temples. People scoop up handfuls of water perfumed with flowers to wash the multitude of statues - buddhas, lions, and nagas (mythical snakes), among others. People also use perfumed water to respectfully pour on their elders and monks as a form of respect. Prior to Pi Mai, they will wash their houses, Buddha statues and spirit houses as well.

By the first day of Lao Pi Mai temples are clean, shining and colourfully decorated

By the first day of Lao Pi Mai temples are clean, shining and colourfully decorated

A woman scoops water over dozens of golden Buddha statues

A woman scoops water over dozens of golden Buddha statues

At the entrance to the temples, you can buy a bucket and cup and help yourself to the giant plastic containers of perfumed water.

You can also buy garlands of marigolds, incense, coconuts, bananas, and various other offerings for the temple

You can also buy garlands of marigolds, incense, coconuts, bananas, and various other offerings for the temple

On Friday, the last day of Pi Mai, I took 5-year old Maya to the Wat Si Muang to see the temples and get a baci (blessing). As expected, she loved it - the colour, the festivities, and not least, flinging water up and onto the gleaming, golden and well-washed statues.

From washing the giant gold naga to posing for a photo or freeing a bird, it's a riot of colour and festival spirit at the temple in Pi Mai

From washing the giant gold naga to posing for a photo or freeing a bird, it's a riot of colour and festival spirit at the temple in Pi Mai

We knelt down on the mat for our baci with the monks, stuffing a donation of 1,000 kip into a large wooden box. It took all of 10 seconds for the young monk to tie a white cotton string around our wrists while chanting a prayer. There were 5 or 6 monks seated here and a continuous line of people.

This is only a simple baci and people collect many over Pi Mai, proudly displaying dozens of white and coloured strings along their arms, blessings of health and happiness for the coming year. Laotians also routinely practice a longer and more traditional baci ceremony on every Lao occasion.

After we had emptied two buckets of perfumed water on the statues, we decided to buy a couple of the little birds in bamboo cages. Birds and other small animals like goldfish are routinely sold and freed as another way of garnering merit and good fortune. It's one of many Lao Pi Mai customs that people practice each year.

While I don't advocate buying into the live animal trade (for it only encourages the capture and sale of more wildlife), it's hard to walk past these little fluttering creatures with a 5-year old animal lover in tow.

Besides, we were taking ours home to our beautiful garden where the tall trees already hold many birds, insects and small animals. I can only hope these newcomers stay.

And with that, it was goodbye to Lao Pi Mai for another year.