Lucky duck that I am I just got to partake in another New Year celebration – my third for the year! This time following the Hindu calendar adhered to by Theravadin Buddhists, including those in Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.
Pee Mai is the most celebrated holiday in Laos. It goes from anywhere between three and seven days, but as a minimum the government provides a three days public holiday, thoughtfully attached to a weekend. Internationally it’s known as the water festival and is held around mid-April, coinciding with the end of the dry season and start of the monsoon.
For the people of Laos, Pee Mai is the one opportunity they have to lose their shit without getting in trouble – government sponsored shenanigans! Of course, there’s also a religious elements to the celebration and a fairy tale that goes along with it.
The Story of Pee Mai
The legend of Pee Mai originates from a time when Buddhism was spreading through Thailand and Laos, merging with existing Hindu and animist ideas. The story starts with a hard-working wealthy couple, living in a small rural village who are unable to conceive a child. The other villagers take pity on the couple and make a prayer at the local Sai tree (a type of fig tree in which a spirit resides). The Sai tree spirit hears their prayer and passes it on Indra (the Hindu god which is King of Heaven). Indra takes pity on the couple and sends Thammaban (a holy creature who is greater than a human, but not quite a god) to be borne by the couple. The couple name their child Thammaban Khuman, meaning son of Thammaban.
Thammaban Khuman possesses knowledge and wisdom superior to all humans, and as result draws the attention of Thao Kabinlaprom (a Brahma from the 16th heaven known to have a hot head (literally)) who challenges Thammaban Khuman to solve a three-part riddle.
For a range of reasons, including the fact that he could speak to birds, Thammaban Khuman easily solves the riddle and as per their agreement, Thao Kabinlaphrom allows his head to be severed. However, because his head is so hot he has to get his seven daughters to promise to keep his head from touching the earth, sky or oceans. If it touches the earth there would be fires, if it touches the sky there would be drought, and if it touches the oceans they would be emptied.
The head of Thao Kabinlaphrom is kept in a cave in Mount Sumeru (a mountain from Buddhist cosmology), and on the thirteenth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (i.e. Pee Mai) one of his daughter removes and waters his head as a sign of respect. Depending on which day of the week the thirteenth falls on, a different one of the daughters would be responsible for the deed (seven daughters, seven days of the week).
These days villages will choose a local girl to represent the relevant sisters to lead a procession while displaying a replica of Thao Kabinlaphrom on a tray. In Luang Prabang this seems to have merged with the Miss Lao New Year contest.
The first day of Pee Mai is called Sangkhan Luangor and is the last day of the old year. On this day people clean their houses in preparation for the new year. People can earn merit and blessings by building mounds of sand (stupas), usually on the river banks and temple grounds, which are then decorated with small triangular flags, flowers, money and candles.
The second day is called Sangkhan Nao, which is the day between the old and the new year. It is known as the day of rest, which means all work is forbidden. Only fun activities should happen such as visiting relatives (fun ???) and friends, taking a day trip or the customary throwing of water on friends and passersby. At night time, there is usually a Lamvong (traditional circle dancing party) and everyone dresses up in their best clothes.
The third day of the Lao New Year is called Sangkhan Kheun. It is the start of the new year and is supposed to be the happiest day of the festival. People go to the temple and make offerings to gain merit. Young people prepare scented water with flowers (mostly yellow wisteria and frangipani) and visit their grandparents, parents, and elders. They rinse the elders’ hands with the water and ask for their blessings and forgiveness for any wrong‐doings in the past year. At home they engage in a special family ceremony i.e. Baci, to welcome the new year.
Pee Mai Parties
In reality most Pee Mai celebrations seemed to start on the Thursday or Friday before the actual holiday, when office parties were held. The PEDA party kicked off at midday. Starting with a Lao feast of beer and wine cooler, bbq’d animals, spicy salads, sticky rice – and (a new one for me) the stomach contents of a cow. When I asked what the dark brown stuff on the plate was my colleagues said cows poo. They then corrected themselves and said it wasn’t actually poo, just the digested food from the stomach – before it comes poo. It tasted earthy (not surprising considering it’s grass) and a little bit bitter (also not surprising as I assume it contained bile – or the cow equivalent). The idea is you dip strips of grilled beef into the paste. To be honest it tasted okay, maybe even good. But for someone who doesn’t like crunchy peanut butter because it tastes like some spat half chewed peanuts into the jar, eating cow dipped in cow pre-poo was a bit challenging.
So we drank and ate and danced in the office – to music so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you. At some point my boss locked us in. Padlocking the front gate into the compound and then the front door of the office. The only option was to keep drinking and dancing.
There’s a tradition here that when you want someone to finish their glass you cheers them and say mot, which means finish. Despite her small size and innocent look, my colleague On is particularly wicked at this. After two drinks everything becomes a mot, and you cop an awful lot of evil eye and peer pressure if you don’t play the game. At one point I had to feign passing out just so I could let the liquid get down to my stomach.
The party kept on until half five, at which point I finally convinced my boss to release us and take us home.
The next day Chani and I headed off to Vang Vieng to chill out for a few days before the proper Pee Mai partying began. It was a pretty lazy couple of days, floating down the Nam Song on a rubber tube. At this time of year the water levels are pretty low, and what would take one hour during the wet, took us three hours. It was great until a huge electrical storm came along and got me thinking about the physics of lightning and water.
This was the first time I’d been to Vang Vieng, and it seems it’s changed a lot from the craziness of a couple of years ago. There were quite a lot of abandoned buildings on the water’s edge, and the people partying the most were Lao, not drunken and high foreigners. Good to see the town has returned a bit to normal.
Chani and I got back from Vang Vieng on Monday in time for our first official Pee Mai party at Peta and Ere’s. Straight away we got a taste of the silliness that was to follow – the tuk-tuk ride from the bus station was insane, hoses, buckets, coloured water bombs. Chani and I were soaked by the time we got to the party, but were greeted with a bucket of icy water and a “Sok dee, Pee Mai”, just to make sure. We drank a quick beer before heading out to a local wat for our first Buddha blessing. We were further soaked on the way to the wat, with buckets and water pistols, time and time again. We watered the Buddhas and any other idol that looked like it needed a wash, and got watered down plenty ourselves. Same thing on the way back, but with the addition of some roadside beers to skull. The walk home from Peta and Ere’s house was long, powdery and very wet – and every time we’d dry off slightly, someone would soak us again. There was to be no escape for the next three days.
Pee Mai day two saw Chani and I picked up in the morning in my bosses ute. Mr Santi, Meow, Gow, Chani and I were in for a day of wats and water. We cruised to a few temples and wet down a whole lot of Buddhas, managing to stay relatively dry ourselves by staying inside the car. We started with Buddha watering at Wat Si Muang and Sisaket Temple in central Vientiane, before heading out west along the Mekong to pick up a couple more revelers. At this point Meow took over driving and the rest of us jumped into the tray. Mr Santi had ‘borrowed’ his kids paddling pool for the day and it was filled with water and ready for the shenanigans.
What ensued was four hours of insanity. Driving back through the main roads of Vientiane, getting absolutely smashed by hoses, buckets, water pistols, water bombs, flour and powder. Everyone in Vientiane was out and about, either driving around in utes or lining the streets. And they were all dancing, drunk, and drenched – and a little bit demented. You couldn’t drive more than ten or twenty meters before you would have to stop again due to traffic – at which point you would get attacked by either the people in the ute next to you or by the crowds on the street. The whole experience was like running the gauntlet – every hesitation resulting in you coping a hammering from all directions. At one point a storm came through which made it flipping cold riding around on the back of the ute – and by the end of it Chani’s lips were turning blue, so we got dropped at home to dry off and warm up.
After an hour or two we headed out for dinner – dressed in rain jackets this time. Thankfully we managed to make it across the road for soup without getting soaked. Things were still in full swing once we finished dinner – the road filled with drunk, wet people holding up traffic.
On day three we wandered into town to try to find somewhere for a pre-party massage. Things were fairly quiet – everyone recovering from the previous evening. So quiet in fact that pretty much everything was closed. So we wandered around looking for a massage and then looking for lunch. By the time we’d ticked those two off, the Pee Mai party was in full swing again and the trip home after lunch was another long, wet one. We chilled out at home for a little bit before heading back into town to visit the Beerlao tent – the last of the Pee Mai events I wanted to tick off my list.
As with the rest of the craziness it involved a heck of a lot of water and beer. This time the water was coming from the roof of the tent – hosing down the hundreds of people jumping around to Thai dance music. It was like being in a huge green house. Beers were handed out in plastic bags – reminiscent of The Church in London. The party stopped at 7 and – whoosh everyone went home.
Later that night many of the street parties were still going – two groups across the road my street putting in a stellar effort for the last day of Pee Mai!
The day after Pee Mai everything was eerily back to normal, streets cleaned of plastic, people gone to work – no signs of the previous three days of shenanigans. I spent the following few days winding down with the Welch and Andrews families, enjoying some poolside time and lots of good food.
Pee Mai over and out.