Vin is from the Khmu ethnic group and every year, in December, he celebrates Khmu New Year with his family. And this year, he generously included us.
“It’s Khmu New Year this weekend in Ban Lak Pad, we should go! I would like you to see how we celebrate the new year and learn more about Khmu culture!” Over the last three years, I’ve learnt so much from Vin, Ock Pop Tok’s Sales & Marketing Coordinator, on Laos and Lao culture. If you’ve ever ordered from our webshop you’ve most definitely been in contact with Vin. Vin is from the Khmu ethnic group and every year, in December, he celebrates Khmu New Year with his family. And this year, he generously included us.
So on a chilly Friday morning last week we hopped on our bikes and drove towards Kuang Si waterfall. After about 20 minutes of green landscapes and blue skies, we reached Ban Lak Pad. Wondering what the name means? It literally means 8 kilometers and was named like this because it’s located, you’ve maybe guessed it… 8 kilometers from town… It’s the biggest Khmu village around Luang Prabang city.
It’s barely after 9.00 and the village is already bustling. Everyone, dressed in colorful Khmu attire, is walking towards the village’s school. Every year, for 3 days – over the weekend – a festival is organized in Ban Lak Pad to celebrate Khmu New Year. Always in the school premises as it’s the biggest gathering space in the village. The festival is called Boun Grur, which in Khmu means Khmu New Year.
Khmu New Year is usually celebrated between December and January depending on the village location. In Ban Lak Pad, it’s always in December. It’s been two years since the last festival in Ban Lak Phad. They usually do it every year but during Covid, it didn’t happen for obvious reasons.
As we walk through the school where stalls of food, games and textiles – including the famous Khmu piet (jungle vine) bags* – are displayed, Vin tells us that the purpose of the festival is, of course to celebrate the end of the year and welcome the new year but also to thank the spirits who allow for good harvests thus providing food for the people.
So of course, we asked Vin, what happens during the festival? What special activities are organized? He explains that it always starts with a baci, a ceremony to give thanks and blessings. In the school yard, a hut has been built. Similar to the one you would see in a rice farm.
The Khmu are mainly farmers. They’ve been cultivating rice and foraging in forests for centuries. They mostly plant rice and in the corners of the farm, they plant some vegetables for the family’s consumption. Corn, pumpkin and cucumber are some popular ones.
In the hut where the baci will be held, they showcase everything they plant in the farm to show what they get from the land and give thanks to the spirits for providing this food. We ask Vin about the oversized bamboo shaped star hanging close-by and he explains that this one is very big and it’s normally way smaller. “It’s for protection, to push back the bad spirits. We put this up when we will start planting and before harvesting. But also if someone in our home is sick or if we have a new baby…”
The Khmu are animist, which means that they attribute a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. And they also believe in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.
Vin also points out the Rang Ron, a pink flower, which he calls the Khmu flower. “We plant it on the farm around the little hut we stay in when we’re planting the rice, or on the path leading to the hut. These flowers are used for the harvest ceremony and the new year.”
The sound of the khene and singing brings us back to the entrance of the school where a group of men are gathered. Vin explains that the khene – a handmade bamboo mouth organ – is of Khmu origin. “For new year, we’ll always have traditional Khmu songs – called turm in Khmu – accompanied by the khene. Turm and khene go together”, says Vin appreciating the music.
It’s still quite early in the day, so I’m not too keen to try the Khmu whisky, Boud Kadong (Lao Hi in lao). But Vin insists that Khmu whisky is an integral part of the new year celebrations. “If you don’t have the whisky, the spirits won’t accept your offering,” he claims.
The traditional Khmu whisky is made of rice and rice husk. I find it so interesting to learn that the women are usually the ones to make the Boud Kadong. “We always have a jar in our home. It is served at every baci; for a new home, new baby, wedding, when someone is sick, etc. so you should always be ready to serve it…”
It’s nearly lunchtime, and my stomach is making it known, so I’m quite keen to know what special food is served to celebrate the new year. Vin proceeds to detail the menu; Orlam which is a stew, buffalo laap, suppak (a green vegetable), steamed pumpkin and sweet potato… “Basically everything we can harvest on the farm!” And since we always need a sweet ending for a new beginning, is also included on the menu, Khao Tom, sticky rice sweetened with sugar cane.
Mark your calendars for next year if you’re planning to visit Luang Prabang in December. You can stop in Ban Lak Pad on your way to Kuang Si…
We were a little bit disappointed as we couldn’t stay long enough to enjoy the traditional Khmu games and activities like the sword show or walking on stilts – which we were introduced to at one of our market fairs at our Living Crafts Centre by our Khmu team members.
And we also missed the demonstration of a special skill which always happens during the festival… carrying the Boud Kadong jar… with the strength of their mouth. Yes, you read that right! We would not have believed it if Vin had not shown us a picture. I ask if it’s a competition and Vin explains that it’s performed by a chosen one… It will be for next time! We’ll mark our calendars for next year… You should too!
*Khmus don’t generally weave, they crochet jungle vine (piet), to make super sturdy (and now trendy) bags. In Khmu villages you can see them crocheting while walking to the farm. It’s fascinating… Get yours on our webshop!
Follow Vin to his favorite lunch place in Luang Prabang! Part of our “Hidden Food Gems” series!