Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) is a three-day celebration. Therefore this is a long post!
Pi Mai Day 1:
Joma is the only city centre cafe I can find that is open (as in not closed for the festivities) and enclosed (as in safe from the water that is liberally thrown at Pi Mai) so I sit on a faux leather sofa drinking English breakfast tea and reflect that watching the Pi Mai Laos celebrations from this non-Lao bubble is possibly not a good start.
Despite everything that I wrote about feeling at home, today I feel like an outsider and I feel sad that I’m not really a part of this. I have some small understanding of the religious significance, the traditional cultural significance, the contemporary cultural significance of Pi Mai Lao and my limited understanding throws my judgements into stark relief – I like the traditional significance more than the contemporary significance. Respecting Buddha and elders with perfumed water suits my personality more than pumping dance music and hardcore water fights. Actually somewhere in the middle sounds fun. And then I feel old and jaded and start wondering whether I’m doing the right research!
Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about Buddhism as it is practiced by a particular group of people who have chosen to make it the centre of their lives. Personally I have been blown away by them. But my research is about normal people who have been brought up in a Buddhist culture and who integrate more or less of that culture into their everyday lives. I’m very grateful to have a deeper understanding of Buddhist teachings and the practices for me will be invaluable, but I must not look around and imagine a country of people in a perpetual state of mindfulness. Pi Mai Lao is a very good place to remember that.
As I step out of the safety that is Joma I’m relieved to see a nearby tuk-tuk driver beckoning to me. I’m amused by, but understanding of, the fact that he uses the celebrations in his bartering over the price of the journey. Less than ten metres after we set off a Lao woman about my age uses a plastic bowl to throw enough water over me to soak me to the skin. Our eyes meet and there is a pause before she smiles and waves and I smile and shout “Sabaidee Pi Mai”. I get the distinct impression that she was not sure how I would react and that maybe some falang (foreigners) do not react in good humour.
We travel down the street and I am struck by the contradictions. Maybe it is because I have come from horror stories about Chiang Mai, but there is a gentle playfulness to the celebrations here that impresses me. There are some crazy parties going on, but there are also families standing at the side of the road together with a big tub of water and modest sized waterpistols. I cannot help, however, but be perturbed by the danger as hoses and homemade paint-bombs are directed into the faces of motorcycle drivers.
And some of the parties are pretty crazy! Hoards of teenagers wearing matching slogan t-shirts and soaked to the skin dance to the ubiquitous pumping dance music. Bare-chested young men with enormous tattoos and young women in wet clinging t-shirts gyrate at the side of the road, on tables, on speakers. I notice my irrational frustration when we pass a few guesthouses where young backpackers join them. It is only 6pm and it isn’t clear how much alcohol has been consumed, the atmosphere is charged but also fun and open. Plenty of water is thrown in my direction but all with laughter and shouts of “Sok Dee Pi Mai” (“good luck for the new year”). I don’t have any photos because I didn’t dare take my camera out!
As we pass one group a disabled man in a self propelled three wheeled wheelchair cuts in beside the tuk-tuk. One of the young men on the pavement stops dancing and slowly approaches the wheelchair with a tub of water. He holds open the man’s shirt at the back of his neck and gently pours the water in, both of them laughing and smiling, then proceeds to tip the wheelchair up into a ‘wheelie’ and dance it along the street. After a few minutes he gently puts the guy back on the road and returns to his partying friends.
Pi Mai Day 2:
I thought that my adventures yesterday would be the limit of my Pi Mai Lao experience but I am invited out to celebrate with a young man who works at my guest house and his friends. At about 11.30am (unusually promptly) an open jeep with about ten teenagers and a plastic covered speaker and a collection of (as yet empty) receptacles for holding water arrives. As we wait for a couple of other guests who are coming I reflect that this is, I think, the first time that I have seen impatience among Lao people. They want to get going to have fun.
As we head out of town we are pelted with water from all angles, including the homemade water/paint bombs that I observed yesterday. They hurt. After a little while myself and an American woman opt to move into the front of the jeep where we experienced the onslaught in relative safety.
We drive way out of town to a friend’s house and fill up the water and then head back into town, stopping at a temple to use bundles of twigs and leaves to shake water perfumed with flower petals over everything important. There are several crates of beer in the jeep so it seems to me obvious that these young people intend to party and I think how nice it is that they went to the temple first – but then I am surprised as we go to another and another temple. The atmosphere is joyful, people wishing each other sok dee pi mai and watering each other. Outside each temple and in between each temple we are soaked by hoses and buckets of water, inside we had water gently shaken over us and in turn shake water over the Buddha images. Some of the temples were 3 or 4 inches deep in water. The contrast between inside and outside the temples was interesting; different but integrated. Although outside the the temple the atmosphere was louder, brighter, more drunken and more raucous it was still broadly respectful, and although inside the temple the atmosphere was respectful and gentle it was still playful.
Then we come out of one temple and the jeep has gone – they had left without a little group of us. But no problem, after a couple more temples and some delicious street-food I wondered back to my guest house and arrived soaking and exhausted, having thoroughly enjoyed my second day of Pi Mai Laos.
Pi Mai Day 3:
Today is HOT!! My mobile phone tells me that it is 36 degrees. It is an effort just to move from my bed to my hammock so when two other guests invite me to walk into town with them I am grateful for the motivation to move and when, within 2 minutes of leaving the guest house, we are soaked to the skin it is a relief. At the first party that we encounter beer is almost forcibly poured down my throat from a beer lao bottle. A first for me in Laos. Plenty of times here I’ve been cajoled and pressured to drink the beer offered to me in a small ice-filled glass, but I’ve never had alcohol physically pressed upon me before.
We carry on, crossing the main road and heading down to the Mekong, on our way getting caught up in another riotous affair where we dance with a man with enormous fake breasts, eat unidentified fruit in a spicy sauce, drink more beer Lao and are thrown, fully clothed, into a paddling pool.
When we get down to the river we can see that there was something going on actually on the sandbanks of the Mekong. We scramble down the sandbank and were in the middle of maybe ten big sandcastle type structures into which people are sticking what look like incense sticks and paper banners. All of these ‘stupas’ have white baci-like threads attaching them to a white tent where a ceremony is taking place. A row of monks chant whilst maybe 50 people sit in prayer position. Many other people kneel around the stupas and others still mill around chatting and observing and watering each other. A woman in front of us speaks a little English and she tells us that the stupas are homes for naga (water serpents that live in the Mekong) and that the ceremony is to encourage naga to come and live in these homes because this is good luck.
Next we head further over the sands right to where the water finally begins. It feels like we are almost in Thailand, like we could almost walk there, although realistically there is probably another 20 or 30 metres of water separating the 2 countries. There is a small crowd of people wading in the water having lowered themselves over the final sandbank, so we join them for a few minutes and splash water over gentle children and exuberant teenagers.
On the way home we discuss whether the same festival could ever happen in Scotland (ignoring the obvious weather issue!) or the US and decide that, although in theory people would love it, in practice people would take it too far, too much alcohol would be drunk, there would be fights and people would get hurt. I appreciate that in Laos, and maybe especially in Thailand, that does regularly happen and admittedly I have not been out on the streets later than 8pm in the evening. The trend for throwing water at motorbike drivers is an obvious and serious concern, as are the thousands of tiny plastic bags used as water-bombs which are strewn across the streets. But, in the vast majority of cases that I have observed here in Vientiane, the celebration is good humoured, respectful of different ways of celebrating the holiday and exercised in various degrees of moderation.
Sabaidee Pi Mai
Happy New Year