From the first days of April every year, Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia such as Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand are nurtured to welcome the New Year with different traditions such as the unique water festival.
During the festival, water is splashed to swept away the sorrows, wickedness in the old year, bringing life to life, sprouting buds, and happy for all things in the new year.
Water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by. People first respectfully pour water on their elders, monks for blessings of long life and peace, then they all throw water at each other.
Over the years another tradition has developed with Lao New Year: people will smear or throw cream (shaving cream or whipped cream) or white powder on each other during the celebrations.
Lao New Year
In Lao language, Lao New Year is called Pi Mai. The Pi Mai Celebration is for 3 days, from Apr 13th to Apr 15th, the hottest time of the year in Laos, which is also the start of the monsoon season.
The first day of the celebration is seen as the last day of the old year. So houses and villages are properly cleaned on the first day. Perfume, water and flowers are also prepared for the new year.
The second day of the festival is the "day of no day", a day that falls in neither the old year or the new year. The last day of the festival marks the start of the new year.
During the festival, Laotians splash water at one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the new year. Sand is also brought to the temple grounds and is made into stupas or mounds, then decorated before being given to the monks as a way of making merit. Another way to make merit at this time is to set animals free, Laotians believe that even animals need to be free. The most commonly freed animals are tortoises, fish, crabs, birds, eels, and other small animals.
Flowers are gathered to decorate Buddha images. In the afternoons people collect fresh flowers. Senior monks take the younger monks to a garden filled with flowers, where they pick flowers and bring back to the wat (Buddhist temple) to wash.
There is an annual beauty pageant in Luang Prabang to crown Miss Pi Mai Lao (Miss Lao New Year). During Lao New Year, there are many spectacles including traditional Lao music, molam, and lamvông (circle dancing). During the daytime almost everybody is at the temple worshiping, hoping to have a healthier and happier life in the new year. During the evening, people of all ages go to the Vat for entertainment.
Cambodian New Year
Cambodia New Year is also called Khmer New Year, as Khmer are the dominant ethnic group within the country, and 95% of Cambodia’s 16 millions people follow Theravada Buddhism - which is also their official religion.
Khmer New Year arrives just after the harvest has been gathered and safely stored, which is significant since the majority of the population are still involved in agriculture.
On the first day of three consecutive celebrating days, Cambodians dress in fine clothes, go to family shrines with lit candles and incense, and thank Buddha for his teachings by bowing to the ground to his image three consecutive times. To bring good luck on the first day, the Khmer wash their faces with holy water in the morning, wash their chests at noontime, and wash their feet just before going to sleep.
On the second day, great attention is given to helping the poor through charity. A special dedication ceremony to family ancestors is also attended at a monastery.
On the third and final day, the images of Buddha are washed in a mixture of water and perfume, which is meant to symbolize the washing away of evil deeds. Elders are also washed in this way, and doing this is thought to bring good luck, happiness, and long life. Good advice is also sought upon washing parents and grandparents in this manner.
Thai New Year
Thai New Year is widely known as Songkran, which is on April 13th every year, but the holiday period last till April 15th. The word “Songkran” come from the Sanskrit, which is a philosophical language of Buddhism, meaning transformation or change.
The Songkran celebration is rich with symbolic traditions. Mornings begin with merit-making. Visiting local temples and offering food to the Buddhist monks is commonly practiced. On this specific occasion, performing water pouring on Buddha statues is considered an iconic ritual for this holiday. It represents purification and the washing away of one's sins and bad luck. As a festival of unity, people who have moved away usually return home to their loved ones and elders.
As a way to show respect, younger people often practice water pouring over the palms of elders' hands. Paying reverence to ancestors is also an important part of Songkran tradition.
The holiday is known for its water festival which is mostly celebrated by young people. Major streets are closed for traffic, and are used as arenas for water fights. Celebrants, young and old, participate in this tradition by splashing water on each other. Traditional parades are held and in some venues "Miss Songkran" is crowned.” where contestants are clothed in traditional Thai dress.