5am on a Sunday morning is not the time you want to be waiting on the street outside your house to be picked up for a party. The same guy walked past me about five times in the dark, saying something suggestive in Lao – first time I said Sahbaidee as I always do – it always seems to disarm people. The next time I ignored him. Next time I said boh, boh (no, no) shaking my head. The next and the next … well it was a relief when the truck stopped and I saw 13 of my students waving to me from the back just as the sun began to rise.
Vongphet had taken me to meet his uncle the day before, after I had some conversation time with his Saturday students (a government job on its own cannot support a family). A big house (actually 3 houses in a type of unwalled compound – extended family) around 20 minutes’ drive out of the centre of town, where they were preparing for a party the next day. After feeling very welcomed to the house, and Vongphet telling me he’d invited the students, I agreed to finish my work up on Saturday night so I could attend my first Pi Mai party.
When we arrived, preparations were in full swing. I’d counted 200 plastic chairs the day before, these were set up around small tables around the yard. The students got straight in to help with food preparations and we all stood around big bowls of salad vegetables, or on the floor inside sorting the food onto plates and covering them with copious amounts of plastic wrap. A cow (pig?) had been roasted and cut into all sorts of chunks (Lao style) on plastic plates, and the tables were soon covered in food as people started to arrive.
Women were dressed for the special occasion – sinhs and sashes, men in long trousers and open necked shirts. Each group of people brought their alms for the local monks who would arrive and begin chanting around 7.30am. There were 10 monks who chanted and gave blessings inside the house. Loud speakers were set up for all those outside the house to join in the praying.
Alms were brought in large silver bowls – always some sticky rice, and then various other items such as packet cakes and snacks, biscuits, drinks, fruit, flowers and money. Other people had ‘money trees’ – an arrangement of plastic covered currency, bags of sheets, and other unidentifiable collections. Whilst the prayers were being chanted, people lined up with their alms at a long table that had the monks’ bowls laid out and they allocated some into each. As the bowls were filled with rolled balls of sticky rice and other offerings, men around the table started to shovel the money and packaged food and fruit into large orange plastic garbage bags as more and more people paid their respects.
The monks left with their goodies soon after, and people began leaving. A Lao tradition is to tie a piece of string or wool around your wrist while they offer you welcome, kind words and a good future. Sometimes money is tucked in as well. ‘Good health’ tends to be my favoured blessing! These amazing elderly ladies are all sisters and each of them welcomed me to sit with them and they all offered me heartfelt blessings.
This wonderful boy’s name is Katoun, and he is an incredible student leader – always gracious, smiling, wanting to help, wanting to learn more, and he loves his English classes the most! He comes from a very poor family from the outer provinces and he is an inspiration to all. He borrowed my camera and went around taking many photos, I’m guessing the first time he’d got a hold of a camera and did a great job! He took quite a few of me ‘in action’ on the dancefloor too – my swaying hips were a hit! At first I wasn’t sure if I was being inappropriate because nobody seems to move their hips when they dance here. It is quite uniform, using hands and stepping with the feet, not a lot of eye contact or passion for the music. So all eyes were on me, with Vongphet, my work colleague, on the microphone I couldn’t get out of it and got requested to dance quite a few times!
Next day at school, I found out my whole class had seen a video of me dancing and wanted to demonstrate. Again, they found it quite hilarious! Apparently it is not taboo, it is just not really done here – maybe I’ll set a new trend?
Things deteriorated after the monks and the many visitors had left … then it was Pi Mai party time! Music cranked up, beer appeared, dancing began, and the dreaded obligatory fluorescent Pi Mai shirts came out. A bit of water throwing, lots of hilarity, and more food.
I ended up leaving ‘early’ – that is, 10 hours (and quite a few beers) since I’d left home that morning, and spending the rest of my Sunday sleeping. So while people were flaking from exhaustion at work on Monday, I felt pretty good for the first (and last) day of the week. Next stop – over the river to Thailand.
One thought on “Sahbaidee Pi Mai! Lao New Year Part 1”
It is years since we were in a book club at Frankston. Glad to hear you are enjoying your time there.