Photo: The event of the year.

Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999

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Situated on a hill rising dramatically at the intersection of two rivers, Luang Prabang has for centuries enchanted those who arrive by boat—still probably one of the best ways to first see the former royal capital of Laos. This town dominated by wats of unspeakable beauty is somnambulant, peaceful and languid, masking a fascinating history of conquest and recapture, and only hinting at an intricate culture and complex traditions. And at designated times of year, the town springs to a life that is unique.





Pi Mai, or New Year, occurs in mid-April and is the most elaborate and vibrant of the festivals dotting the Lao calendar year. It marks the beginning of the new agricultural year, with rain expected any day, and as if throwing back a blanket, the town wakes up and a time-honoured drama unfolds to seduce all who are lucky enough to be there. Extending for three days, the festival begins on the last day of the old year, and ends on the first day of the new. Between these days is a “neutral” day, where the Lao reputedly don’t age.

The kids of Pi Mai Lao. Class of 1999 Photo taken in or around Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999, Luang Prabang, Laos by Stuart McDonald.

The kids of Pi Mai Lao. Class of 1999 Photo: Stuart McDonald

On the first day of rituals, we awake with the sun. Already the street below is milling with people. There’s a palpable expectant feel in the air, and we follow the crowds to what’s known as talaat nat, where all the necessary festival items ranging from candles to live animals are for sale. Pairs of birds in tiny pink straw cages lined up neatly on mats chirp incessantly alongside tiny fish in buckets being sloshed into small plastic bags and restless turtles and frogs stretching against protective nets: the liberators of these animals will gain merit.

Traditional Lao musical instruments are also for sale, along with basketware, obscure noise-making implements, helium balloons, sweets, soups and coconut ice cream. Streams of coloured paper hand-painted with the signs of the Lao zodiac and mounted onto slim sticks are carried along by the crowd, fluttering in the slight breeze. Gambling is popular: it’s hard to work out how the odds work on the myriad of games. Throwing a tennis ball, aiming a dart, flicking a slingshot or spinning a fish can variously win you cigarettes, fish sauce, washing detergent, or, if you’re unlucky, a lolly ... please log in to read the rest of this story.


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