How I Celebrated Lao New Year Like a Local – Vientiene Edition

Last year I able to cross out an item from my bucket list; to celebrate Lao New Year in Laos! Just a bit of background about how this came to be:

The Secret War:

Bomb fields. Image from:

My parents, along with countless others, came to America as refugees shortly after the Vietnam War. Laos was to be a neutral country during this war, but from 1964 – 1973, the US dropped over 2 million bombs in Laos in an effort to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh trail. During the 9 years of bombings, countless villages were destroyed and several hundred-thousand Lao were displaced or killed. This became known as the Secret War in Laos. To this day, thousands of un-detonated bombs that remain still kill or severely mutilate the people living in the lands.

It amazes me to know that my family was affected in such a way from this war. It also saddens me also to know that there is so much more family I have from Laos I may never get to know. Beyond my grandmother, I have no knowledge of my family tree and culture. Growing up not knowing where you come from or why you came to be meant my life was full of questions.

It was hard enough trying to find an identity in America when others look at you and don’t see you as “American”, but being classified as a “Laotian” and not knowing a thing about Laos made me feel like I didn’t quite belong anywhere.

I knew that above all else, I at least had to see the country and its people in its current state. What better time to experience this than during the New Year?

First cleansing of new year

The Traditions

New Year, or Pii Mai, brings great joy and festivities to all who celebrate (the new year coincides with the traditional solar new year and is shared with many countries, including Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and some parts of India). The holiday falls on April 13th or 14th and typically lasts 3 days. Traditionally, this time represents the end of the harvest season, so food and drink is plenty all around. Water plays an important part in the new year festivities as it resembles a clean start to the new year. People begin by cleaning and washing their homes, temples, and other Buddhist relics. All around you’ll see people playfully splashing water on anyone all for the sake of New Year. It can look like an all out water-fight.

Family Over Everything

I started the new year festivities early in the capital Vientiane. Although it was still 3 days away from the official start, the locals took an early weekend to prepare the party for new year. I was invited by my cousin to attend a Pii Mai celebration put on by her co-workers at the Education for Development Foundation. Although this should have been considered a “work party”, nothing about it felt like work. There was no talk about work or projects. No one awkwardly holding their drinks and trying to force themselves to mingle with their bosses. This felt like a family party. And though no one was related, we all pitched in to help cook, clean, pour drinks, and party like family.

Workers at The Education for Development Foundation
Workers at The Education for Development Foundation

From the images above, you can see our nifty matching yellow t-shirts. During New Year, every house wears matching t-shirts in order to resemble kind of a “Lao New Year Team” at the water fights. Although it wasn’t outright said to me, I feel this gives each house a tactical advantage when battling their neighbors. You don’t want to mess with team yellow in a water war.

Suu Kwan/Baci Ceremony
Suu Kwan/Baci Ceremony

Beyond the water festivities, I participated in a Su Kwan (or Baci) ceremony. This is a ceremony commonly practiced across Laos to call on good spirits (kwan) to return to the body and ward off bad omens. With the transition of the new year, Lao people believe that the spirit can leave the body. A Su Kwan is performed to prevent this. People gather around the Pah Kwan and present offerings, then, an important figurehead relays a chant calling the kwan to return. Participants then tie white thread around each others wrists while wishing good fortune.

They got me pretty good with the baby powder.
They got me pretty good with the baby powder.

After the Su Kwan, we ate, drank, and danced for hours. This was truly an amazing experience. Beyond being drenched with water, I was caked with baby powder and full of Beer Lao. In total, the party went from morning til dawn. I’m sure it could have gone longer, but a freak lightening storm came and blew away our tent.

If there is anything I learned by celebrating the with Lao locals, its they are some of the most generous and grateful people I have come across. They made sure to keep my plate and glass full. Although I was simply a visitor, I was welcomed like I was one of their own. They care about their traditions and love to share the wonders of Lao culture with others.

This post alone could not cover all I experienced during Lao New Year. From Vientiane, I took a bus up to Vang Vieng and finally to Luang Prabang. My next post will contain full details of my experience with the locals in the popular city of Luang Prabang during its most famous holiday.

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