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East Portland hosts Lao New Year celebration

TIM CURRAN
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO

The Venerable Khamsene, a Theravada Buddhist monk, receives special gifts of food and money during the 2004 New Year festivities at Wat-Buddhatham-aram. The Wat, a Buddhist temple in east Portland, is the annual site for Boun Pimai Lao, the Lao New Year celebration for Oregon's Lao community.
MEMO PHOTO: TIM CURRAN
Building sand stupas is part of the Lao New Year celebration.

The Lao believe the grains of sand used to build a stupa represent adverse deeds from the previous year.

When completed, the stupas are dusted with rice flour and decorated with paper streamers with inscriptions paying homage to the Buddha (the enlightened one), Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) and the Sangha (Buddhist monks). Behind the stupa is the Buddhasimma, or Sim, the most sacred building at the Wat-Buddhatham-aram complex. Sim is where laymen are ordained into monkhood and where the most important Buddhist ceremonies take place. Sim also represents the creative and artistic talents of the Lao people.”
MEMO PHOTO: TIM CURRAN
Traditional native costumes and dances are part of every Boun Pimai Lao. Dressed in their native Hmong costume, these tiny dancers perform for guests at the annual Lao New Year celebration.
COURTESY HONGSA CHANTHAVONG
On New Year's Day during the Boun Pimai Lao, celebrants bring gifts of rice, fruit and money for the monks. The money is folded into small triangles and arranged with the other gifts in a bowl.
COURTESY HONGSA CHANTHAVONG
The Wat Buddhatham-aram, or temple, at Northeast 133rd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard is the social and religious center for the Lao community in Oregon and Southwest Washington. On Saturday, April 17, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., it becomes the local ground zero for the annual Lao New Year celebration, or Boun Pimai Lao (pronounced Boon Pee-My). The Lao community is extending an invitation to its Mid-county neighbors to attend this annual festival celebrating their culture.

Numbering more than 12,000 in the Portland metro area, the Lao community is comprised mainly of five ethnic groups: the Lao, Mien, Hmong, Taidam and Tai lu.

This year's New Year celebration holds added significance because it marks the 35th anniversary of the fall of the Royal Lao government, causing a diaspora of more than 500,000 Laotians around the world, including many who now make their home in Oregon and Washington.

As part of the festivities on April 17 a community Buddhist ceremony will be held, a Bacci (pronounced bossy) ceremony will take place, and stupas will be built. In addition, there will be food and craft vendors for you to sample Lao cuisine and culture. Ethnic music and various activities will take place throughout the day at the Wat.

This year, instead of a traditional three-day festival at Wat Buddhatham-aram, there is the one-day celebration on the 17th, then, the following Saturday, April 24, the Lao community is holding a formal celebration at Legin Restaurant, 8001 S.E. Division St., from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. In addition to the six-course family-style Chinese dinner, the celebration will showcase traditional cultural dance performances and a fashion show, followed by live music until 1 a.m.

Celebrated by Laotians in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, Boun Pimai Lao is seen as a day of rebirth and purification. The celebration is the most important and largest traditional festival in Laos. Held annually in that country from April 13 to 15, it coincides with the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy, or monsoon, season.

According to the Lao creation myth, the Boun Pimai Lao celebration began after King Thao Kabinlaphrom, unable to solve a three-part riddle, lost his life in a bet to a man named Thammaban Khumankabinlaphrom, and was beheaded.

A metaphor for the seven days of the week, King Kabinlaphrom's seven daughters took great care not to let his severed head touch the ground or, according to legend, there would be destruction throughout the world. The head was kept in a cave on Mt. Sumeru, until Pimai, when each daughter took turns cleansing the head and performing rituals, bringing good weather and happiness during the new year.

The important role water plays in the New Year celebrations sprang from this myth.

The first day of Pimai, called Mur Sangkhane or Luang marks the last day of the old year, when people clean their homes and Buddha statues at the temple with scented water in preparation for the New Year. Also on Sangkhan Luan, blessings are earned by building stupas - mounds of sand decorated with triangular flags, flowers, money and candles - on temple grounds. The hope: to receive as much luck as there are grains of sand.

It is also believed that if a married couple wishes to have children, they should build little mounds around the big one. Sand stupas symbolize Mt. Sumeru, where King Kabinlaphom's head was kept by his seven daughters.

The second day is called Mur Sangkhane Nao, the day between the old and the New Year, a day considered neither part of the old nor New Year. Also known as the day of rest, work is forbidden on Mur Sangkhan Nao and only fun activities take place: visiting relatives and friends, taking a day trip or the customary throwing of water on friends and passersby. At night, there is usually a Lamvong, or circle dancing party, and everyone dresses their best to partake in the celebration.

The third day of the Lao New Year celebration is called Mur Sangkhane Kheun Pimai Lao. The start of the New Year (New Year's Day), it is the most joyous day of the festival. Laotians visit their temple; make offerings to gain merit, and eat special dishes to bring them luck, including larb, the Laotian national dish.
Originating with the King Kabinlaphrom legend, earlier in the day, children prepare scented water with flowers and visit grandparents and parents, rinsing their elders' hands and asking for their blessings and forgiveness for transgressions in the preceding year. At home on the third day, Laotians engage in the family ceremony called Sukhwan, or Bacci, to welcome the New Year. Performed by a ceremonial leader known as the Mophon, he calls the Khwan, or tutelary spirits, back to the body. Symbolizing purity, participants take turns tying white strings around each other's wrists to wish them good luck and prosperity for the New Year.

According to Wikipedia, there are several ways to wish someone a happy New Year in Lao. The most common expressions are “souksan van pimai” or “sabidee pimai,” translate into English as “Happy New Year.”

If you go, you may get wet; celebrants are not only wishing you a long and healthy life, but themselves.

The Wat Buddhatham-aram is located at 4350 N.E. 133rd Ave. For more information about Lao New Year or the Wat Buddhatham-aram contact Hongsa Chanthavong at 503-235-9396, e-mail him at HongsaC@mail.irco.org, or visit watpdx.com.
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