Laos is a country with three distinct New Year celebrations. While international New Year’s Eve on December 31 is becoming more popular, those traveling to Laos in mid-December or April will find themselves immersed in cultural New Year celebrations unique to Southeast Asia.
The Hmong people are an ethnic tribe who live in Northern Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Mid-December means New Year celebrations for Hmong people, who don their best clothes and silver jewelry. Carnival games, singing and dancing and (of course) tons of delicious food are part of the celebration. The Hmong courtship ritual is an important part of the New Year celebration–in a game called pov pob, young people toss cloth balls back and forth to get to know one another and find potential partners.
While December 31st is not traditionally a big holiday in Laos, Westerners wanting to celebrate will be able to find booze-fueled countdown parties organized by beer companies like Beer Lao and Heineken. In Vientiane, the Cultural Hall parking lot turns into a street festival with lights, DJs and vendors selling food and drink to revelers awaiting the countdown at midnight. Some Western restaurants in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang will have New Year’s Eve dinner menus, stay open until midnight and include a champagne toast.
While much of the Western world sleeps in on January 1st, hungover from a night of partying, Lao people enjoy day drinking and are more likely to invite their friends and family to their houses to eat, drink and be merry. Bring some fruit and beers along and you’ll certainly be invited to join in the festivities. Be prepared for lots of toasts, food and laughter. Lao people are known to throw a great party for any occasion.
Lao New Year, also called Pi Mai or Songkran, is celebrated in Laos from April 14-16. This festival is officially three days long, but it usually lasts a full week and includes huge water fights, where people get doused with water and flour in the streets by strangers. Carry an umbrella and join in the fun. Parades in cities, especially Luang Prabang and Vientiane (to a lesser extent), have people dressed in traditional masks retelling the history and folklore of Laos and Buddhism. Temples and homes are cleaned for the New Year, and the faithful make offerings. Beauty pageants, baci ceremonies and traditional music and dance round out the festivities.