Just when a slightly jaded cultural writer thinks he has seen it all, a brightly painted stupa and surrounding religious complex, rises from the Cajun prairie and changes all that. That’s what happened this Easter Sunday anyway, in the small town of Broussard, where the Laotian (or Lao, I’ve seen it both ways, if someone wants to correct me on the proper term) community was celebrating their New Year Festival, Songkan. From what I understand this group of between 500 and 1,000 south-east Asian expats and their Louisiana born kin have been formally getting together at the Buddhist, Wat Dhammaratanaram temple for over 20 years. Celebrations include lots of traditional food, a beauty pageant and parade, a water cleansing fight, the sweeping out of last year’s bad luck from homes and the ritual building of a large, flag-studded sand castle.
Golden spires rise from the flat alluvial plain and glisten against the pine, cypress and wild sassafras trees. Incense blends in the warm air with the smells of grilling chicken and fresh fruit. Dragon and elephant motif murals and carvings cover the buildings in elaborate red and white pictograms. The wall surrounding the temple grounds is composed of pillar shrines to ancestors, each adorned with plastic flowers and candles. Vendors sell syrupy, thick iced coffee and coconut drinks along with wickerwork and CDs from the home country.
Louisiana is a state known of its oddly themed festivals—The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, The Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, The Mirliton Festival. But, increasingly these outdoor beer bashes have started to feel sort of similar. The same road-weary carnies, tending the same creaking rides decorated in flaking paint and with half their lightbulbs burned out. As much fun as Louisiana is during festival season, most of these events have taken on a certain sameness, catering to the roving RV crowd, bike clubs and parents looking for a place to distract their kids. These are festivals meant to draw in tourists. In opposition stand things like the Laotian New Year which seems to be aimed squarely at the refugee community that flocked to south Louisiana following the Vietnam war. There was even a veteran’s tent full of older men eating pho and grilled meat on skewers. I am not being critical of events like the Beaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. Where else would one see both a live demonstration of the Sham Wow and a competitive crawfish eating contest? I only mention it because this New Years Festival was unlike any of the other Louisiana fetes I have attended. Maybe a bit like the wild, horseback Mardi Gras in Mamou—decidedly organized for and attended by locals. To be sure, I was not the only blue-eyed person present but the dominant language was not English or even French. And in a state that with as varied a patchwork of a culture as Louisiana has, it is inspiring to see yet another swatch being sown into the whole.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have been approached about writing a book about obscure Louisiana restaurants, towns and festivals. I certainly feel like I have a decent working knowledge of the subject, but the Laotian New Year had always been one of those events that I had missed out on. I don’t think it will be my last visit but I would recommend attending on Saturday night when, by the looks of the festival grounds, the real action happens. I feel so singularly fortunate to have been born in such an unusual place. Now, to be presented with the opportunity to explore and write about it at greater length, I can’t think of anything I’d rather undertake. If everything works out with the book then I guess I will look back on this trip as my first day of formal research. If the rest of the project is half as interesting then this is going to be an amazing year.
NOTE: Sorry that the EXIF data is missing on some of these shots. I used a post-processing piece of software that strips it out for reasons unknown to me.