Here in the UK, New Year’s celebrations are all about pretending to know all the words to Auld Lang Syne, enjoying fireworks and the lingering feeling of Christmas dinner bloat. But across Indochina, and scattered throughout the whole of the year, people are celebrating the arrival of a whole new year in a variety of colourful and jubilant ways. So join us as we take you on our Banana Tree guided tour of them!
Vietnam – Tết
The most important and anticipated event in the Vietnamese calendar, the Tết festival takes its name from the phrase Tết Nguyên Đán, which literally translates as ‘Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.’ It’s usually celebrated around January or February, and often falls on the same day as Chinese New Year.
If you visit any major city in Vietnam around the time of Tết, you’re likely to find it bustling and bursting with activity, colour and festivities. For three days, the whole country gathers together with family and friends, often making long pilgrimages across Vietnam to be with their loved ones. During that time you can expect to come across no end of brightly coloured clothing, elaborate decorations, and boisterous parades featuring firecrackers, drums and the traditional Mua Lan dance. Friends and relatives are visited, ancestors are worshipped and the young and elderly are given the gift of ‘lucky money’ to give them good fortune in the year to come.
Even once these celebrations are over, Tết carries on with lavish feasts of delicious, traditional Vietnamese dishes – including banh chung sticky rice cakes, salted vegetables and bamboo soup. And if you’re starting to feel pangs of hunger and a craving for some festivities just thinking about it, there’s plenty more to come, including…
Thailand – Songkran
We’ve talked about Thailand’s Songkran festival before – in fact it’s such a joyous occasion every year that we’ve celebrated it ourselves and brought it over to our Thai restaurants in Soho, Maida Vale, Oxford and beyond. Every year, from April 13th to April 15th, the people of Thailand mark the coming of a whole new year in the only way befitting such an occasion – with a massive water fight and street party. People of all ages take to the street to splash and soak each other with buckets, water guns and hoses, with fire engines providing refills so that the watery revelry can carry on all day.
There are quieter, less boisterous celebrations too – as Songkran is traditionally a Buddhist festival, people often take the chance to visit monasteries, where they quietly reflect, and also pour water over statues of Buddha in order to cleanse them. So if you’re planning on visiting Thailand over Songkran, be warned – you’re likely to get wet!
Laos – Pii Mai
At the same time that the people of Thailand are soaking each other in the street, Laos is busy celebrating its own version of the same festival. After preparing fragrant water with spices and flowers, the people of Laos gather to pray, worship and then wash statues of Buddha. Representing the cleansing qualities of a whole new year, they also splash the water over houses, temples and even animals and tools. Unlike in Thailand, this celebration doesn’t usually lead to a water fight. Instead, it leads to something a lot messier – flour fights, although whipped cream and shaving cream have also been known to be used.
The dish most commonly associated with these celebrations is laap, a mixture of meat and salad, flavoured with lime, garlic, mint leaves, fish sauce and ground toasted rice. Laap is such a favourite in Laos that it’s considered the country’s national dish – and if it’s anything less than delicious, it’s seen as a bad omen for the year to come.
Cambodia – Chol Chnam Thmay
The last stop on our new year’s celebrations tour is Cambodia’s Chol Chnam Thmay, which shares many similarities with Songkran and Bunpimay. As with those celebrations, there’s time for celebrating with loved ones, quiet reflection and the washing of statues. But Chol Chnam Thmay also culminates in a giant, celebratory procession and a ceremony in which huge mounds of sand are built to usher in a new year of good weather and happiness for all.
And because an Indochinese new year’s celebration wouldn’t be complete without a delicious traditional dish or two, for Chol Chnam Thmay Cambodians often prepare kralan – a cake of steamed rice, beans, peas and coconut.