Pi Mai: Buddhist New Year.

April 21, 2006

For the past three days we have been in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, celebrating Pi Mai, the Lao Buddhist New year. Pi Mai occurs every April and marks the beginning of a new year in the Buddhist calendar. By Buddhist reckoning, we are just starting the year 2,549.

In North American, the new year begins among the darkest, coldest days of winter, yet people celebrate with trust that better days will soon follow. In Laos, the Buddhist new year begins among the hottest, driest days of the year when fields are parched and the previous year’s harvest is nearly depleted. In Laos, as in North America, the new year is a time for optimism; for hope that difficult days are behind and better days are ahead.

Appropriately, Pi Mai is a time for new beginnings. People clean their houses, mend their clothes, and wash the religious objects in their homes and temples. This ritual mending, washing and cleaning creates a break with any bad luck experienced during the past year and is an expression of hope for a better future.

The liveliest part of the Pi Mai celebration takes place on the streets. For three days, well-wishers arm themselves with buckets, pails, hoses, and squirt guns, and douse passersby with water. As the water is intended as a blessing, everyone accepts the splashing with good cheer. Over time, everyone gets blessed. Men, women, boys and girls; old, young, strong or frail. Of course, some are more enthusiastically blessed than others.

Walkers, as easy targets, are often soaked to the skin just a few blocks from home. Bike riders and motorcyclists are more challenging to hit, but most Lao are skilled at leading a moving target and can place an entire bucket of water right in the lap or face of a speeding cyclist. The small taxis called tuktuks are open and slow moving, making the driver and passengers vulnerable. Should the tuktuk be carrying a foreigner (a “falaang”), it’s certain to be blessed frequently. During Pi Mai, a tuktuk driver willing to carry falaang, will probably ask to be paid a premium over the ordinary fare.

The water throwing continues until dark (although roving bands of youths in pickup trucks, provisioned with tubs of water, may haunt the streets a while longer). The next day, about noon, the fun starts all over again. And, the day after that, as well. Unless you have a closed car to ride in, and can craftily dodge the water throwers outside shops and markets, you have few choices during Pi Mai. You can get soaked every time you venture out, or you can put yourself under house arrest for the duration of the holiday.

One afternoon Marty and I gave as good as we got. We attached ourselves to a group on the street that was armed with squirt guns, hoses, buckets and pails. We cheerfully washed away bad luck from every soul that passed our way. If we neglected to bless some old ladies and small children it was only because, walking slowly, they offered so little challenge. Marty and I congratulated ourselves for bringing an element of our Judeo-Christian traditions to the holiday: “It’s better to give than to receive.”

In the evenings throughout Pi Mai, friends gather in homes and restaurants for festive parties that start early and end late. I fell asleep at midnight listening to the music and laughter from a neighbor’s Pi Mai party; raucous party noise woke me hourly throughout the night. If it hadn’t rained at 5:00 am and hosed down the celebrants, they might have partied ‘til dawn.

Wanting to see if there was a more subdued side to Pi Mai, Marty and I visited four Buddhist temples to watch families celebrate in a place of worship. By the time we walked the five blocks to the first temple we looked like drowned rats; my clothes stuck to my body and my socks squished in my hiking boots. Inside the temple grounds the atmosphere was just a tad calmer than on the street outside the gates. Here, people dipped garland of flowers in water and shook the dripping blossoms over our heads, cheerfully wishing us well. Others, carrying bottles or small pails, poured water over our heads or down our arms.

The stone floors of the temple buildings were awash in water. People sloshed through puddles inside the sanctuary to splash statues of the Buddha with water from their garlands or pails. Around the temple grounds, people had shaped huge sand piles into head-high cones resembling the “stupas” or mausoleums that traditionally hold the ashes and bones of the deceased. These temporary constructions were festooned with sticks of burning incense and signified a reverence for ancestors. Monks in saffron robes sat cross- legged on mats and offered blessings to any well-wisher who visited the temple.

Lao friends tell us that in smaller cities and towns, Pi Mai retains a calmer nature than in Vientiane where some youths armed with ice water and bags of food coloring have begun to push the limits of good-natured fun. The tour books all say the place to be for Pi Mai is Luang Prabang, the old royal capitol and now a World Heritage city. There, the holiday is celebrated with enthusiasm but people have not lost sight of traditional Lao values.

Marty and I were thankful that Pi Mai occurs during the hottest, driest month of the year. There was little discomfort to being doused, and no humiliation since almost all of the celebrants were well meaning and good-natured. We never ventured out of doors with our cameras, so we didn’t lose any valuable possessions to the fun. If I’m here next April, I’ll head to a more traditional setting and give it another try.

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