What to expect at Lao Pi Mai

It's Pi Mai (Lao new year) next week and everyone in Vientiane is going slightly mad in anticipation. Our neighbourhood karaoke started up about 9am this morning and hasn't stopped since. In fact, it's definitely louder, and I expect it will continue for most, if not all, of the next 10 days.

99% of Vientiane falang will be making a mad dash for the border tomorrow night and first thing Saturday; no doubt the customs queues in Nong Khai will be full of friends and white faces. Then they'll all disperse to far flung corners of Asia: Chennai, Hong Kong, Phuket, Siem Reap, Hanoi, and beyond.

Not us though. We are gearing up for 3 days of public holidays - next Wednesday, Thursday, Friday - and the surrounding 1-2 days before and after when everything is closed. Shops, restaurants, even petrol stations. Even the roads are closed, well blocked by exceeding happy (and increasingly drunken) water-throwing revellers. 

A friend described a scene a couple of years ago when their car was accosted by crazed people throwing water, food dye and flour as they drive down the street. People were mobbing their car, pressing their faces against the window and shrieking, "It was like the cancan scene out of Moulin Rouge," she said. Not so fun for their toddler who started crying in the backseat.

Maybe an extreme example? Apparently last year the food dye and flour were banned and it was a more sedate affair. 

Basically, the pouring of water signifies good luck for the coming year. "Sok dee Pi Mai" is how you wish people at this time and it literally translates as "Good luck New Year". So, the more water that's poured on you, the better luck you receive. This is particularly evident, as another friend attested, if you happen to be pregnant - you need twice the luck (and water).

People line the streets and throw pitchers, buckets, bags and balloons filled with water at any passerbys whether they're in cars, on motorbikes, bicycles, or particularly hapless people on foot. Pickup trucks roam the streets with music blaring and a few guys manning giant gallon drums of water, spraying it out at everyone they see.

Everyone gets in on the act and it's great fun for kids too. And considering that it's 40 degrees every day, nobody seems to mind being doused with water.

Throwing water on the streets isn't of course the true meaning of Pi Mai, it's just the fun after effect. The actual festivities are about cleansing the home and the spirit by washing away the sins of the old year and welcoming in the new, and respecting and asking the blessing of elders. Each of the three days of Pi Mai is significant and has different traditions.

Visiting the temples and receiving a baci (blessing) from the monks is essential, and doing so as many times as possible also seems to rack up the good luck. So, 'temple crawls' are popular with people visiting as many as 40 temples a day.

Like the Boat Racing Festival and the Festival of Lights, Pi Mai in the cities draws in people from surrounding villages. There are family reunions, markets and other festivities, and it is all centred downtown around the banks of the Mekong. There is a Miss Lao New Year parade and a sand sculpture exhibition, which already looks pretty awesome from a distance.

Miss Pi Mai parade Image credit - Laos Day Tour

Miss Pi Mai parade Image credit - Laos Day Tour

Giant sand sculptures under construction by the Mekong River

Giant sand sculptures under construction by the Mekong River

I, for one, can't wait to get out amongst it. We'll be taking the kids for the baci ceremonies and to see the parade and the sand sculptures. Our water pistols and balloons are on the front porch. And I'll have the camera (waterproofed and) at the ready.

A 5 second guide to surviving Pi Mai:

• Dig out your best Hawaiian shirt. Anything flowery is awesome.
• You will get sprayed with water on the streets. Embrace it. And don't wear white.
• Hurl your own water back at them, they'll love it.
• The only thing you can be certain of buying during Pi Mai is Beer Lao.

Sok dee Pi Mai!