Lao New Year's traditional focus draws tourists

Mon Apr 16, 2012 1:18pm EDT
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By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

VIENTIANE (Reuters) - On the first day of "Pi Mai Lao," or Lao New Year, the capital Vientiane wakes up to the sound of Buddhist monks chanting in the ancient Pali language as women in traditional silk skirts gather at dawn to offer alms to monks in orange colored robes.

Phonesavanh Xaypanya, 63, is one of them. Together with her five-year-old grand-daughter Malaythong she kneels down to offer homemade sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.

"I'm offering wish for good health and success this New Year," said Phonesavanh. "This is an auspicious day to offer food and receive blessings."

The slow pace and lagging modernization of Laos, just starting to gain recognition among foreign tourists, means that traditions long abandoned in Thailand, just to the west, remain a key part of life - and are now an important draw for foreign visitors.

As this nominally Communist and landlocked former French colony slowly opens, courting neighboring China, Thailand and Vietnam to develop its resources and infrastructure, the old-fashioned pace of life is becoming an important resource of its own, charming visitors jaded with more modern capitals.

The three-day New Year's holiday that this year ended on April 16 is just one example of the hospitality and easy-going people that have earned the "Laos People's Democratic Republic" - the country's formal name - the nickname "Laos Please Don't Rush" among its expatriate community.

Whereas Thailand's Songkran festival is characterized by often raucous celebrations, in Vientiane's gilded temples vendors sell jasmine garlands, sticks of marigold flowers, incense and candle sticks for the religious ceremonies that take place throughout the holiday.

At Pha That Luang, a gold stupa in the center of Vientiane, tourists and locals file in to pour scented water over Buddha statues decorated with flowers, a cleansing act that is far more than just a sign of respect.   Continued...

Nang Sangkhan, or Miss Lao New Year, pours water mixed with frangipanis and perfume over the head of a statue as she takes part in "Pi Mai Lao," or Lao New Year celebrations in Vientiane April 13, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer