In rural Iberia Parish, thousands of people gathered this weekend at the local Therevadan Buddhist temple, Wat Thammarattanaram, to celebrate the Lao New Year and Lao culture with family and friends.

The Laotian community in Acadiana celebrates the new year over the course of three days at Lanexang Village. This weekend signaled the start of the year 2559.

The New Year’s celebration, also known as Songkran, began Friday, the last day of the old year; continued on Saturday, the day that has no year; and culminated on Sunday, the first day of the new year.

“For the New Year, we take our time to gather and to see our family,” said Bouaphousavanh Norat as she sat in the temple, helping organize money gathered on a money tree for the temple. “It’s a time for forgiveness and enjoying ourselves in a community.”

The celebration included a parade, dancing, a beauty pageant and vendors selling food and items from Southeast Asia. Sugarcane and Kao-larm, a traditional Laotian holiday food that has black beans mixed with sticky rice grilled inside a bamboo shoot, easily appeared to be the most common food item offered.

Kano Chanthaleuangsy, 21, has family in the area and came to Cajun country from South Carolina for the festivities.

“I like seeing all my friends and family,” said Chanthaleuangsy. “We sit down, drink and relax.”

Norat said people from around the country come to the village to meet family during Songkran and to visit the temple.

“It seems like it works because more and more and more people come each year, celebrating with us,” Norat said.

Some use the weekend to show the younger generation in their family what Buddhism is about and to keep the religion strong.

Chonephet Nitchin, who visited the temple Sunday with her family, including her sisters Thip Evans and Phett Neuville, said although her children were born in Acadiana and attend Catholic schools, she brings them so they can learn about their culture and pray.

“We’re glad to keep the religion, the traditions and the customs alive,” said Nitchin.

Her sisters also raise their children as both Catholics and Buddhists so they can be well-rounded and honor their immigrant grandparents, said Evans.

“I’ve kind of grown out of my culture,” said Chanthaleuangsy. “That’s why I visit every year — to revisit my culture.”

Lanexang Village is located off of U.S. 90 and has about 400 people in the community, and the temple houses about 13 monks at a time. Across Acadiana, there are about 2,000 Laotian Americans in 200 to 300 families, Norat said.

The families first settled in Iberia Parish in the 1980s after communists gained control of Laos. The land for Lanexang Village was purchased and divided among the families.