April 16, 2012 / 12:17 PM / 7 years ago

Lao New Year's traditional focus draws tourists

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.

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

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 food...to 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.

“It will bring good luck and prosperity this year,” said a smiling Phong Chandala, 28.

As the festivities continue, religious chanting makes way for electronic music played at full volume. Locals and tourists gather by the road-side for a full day of water-fights, splashing and drinking.

By sun-set the party is in full swing across the city. Young people dance and throw buckets of water at each other until the next day when the celebrations begin again.

“The atmosphere today is amazing,” said Margret Bjorndottir, 20, from Iceland. “We’re travelling around southeast Asia and heard wonderful things about Laos and we were not disappointed.”

Visitors from Thailand also travelled to Vientiane in search of ways that have vanished at home.

“Lao people still respect the old customs, that’s why we like it. And the water fight is more relaxed than in Bangkok. It’s so crowded there,” said Malee Vongchumyen, 39, from Thailand.

Her husband, 42-year-old Saksith Vongchumyen, agreed.

“It’s not the same anymore in Thailand, there is too much drinking and stupid behavior. Laos reminds me of traditional new year when I was a kid,” he said.

Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato

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