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Festivals of Laos

Laos celebrates many festivals during the year. Some of them, like the New Year, are shared with other countries such as Cambodia or Sri Lanka.Others, however, are peculiar to Laos: for example, the Elephant Festival in Sayabouly or the Rocket Festival held in many villages. Most of them come from Buddhism, and share some common traditions and symbols, like water, sand, candles, and incense.

The holidays are often an occasion to gain good luck for the coming year (or for a Buddhists’ next life), to pay respect to the elderly, to make offerings to the monks, or to share some traditional dishes with your loved ones.

Highlights

  • Take part in the many traditional celebrations to thank nature for the harvest.
  • Celebrate the exciting Pii Mai, the Lao New Year.
  • See hundreds of rockets fired into the sky during the Rocket Festival.
  • Join the huge crowds gathering at That Luang, the most important religious monument in Laos.

Boun Khun Khao

Time: End of January to early February

Agriculture is extremely important in Laos. Boun Khun Khao (the Rice Festival) is one of the most important festivals in Laos. The purpose of the festival is to express appreciation to the spirit of the land and to thank him for the abundant new harvest. The festival takes place on the banks of the Mekong River, around Vientiane.

The celebrations see rice farmers storing unhusked rice inside the temples. People usually sit around a gigantic bunch of flowers called Pha Khouan to attend a ceremony conducted by the elders of the village. They will tie a cotton string around people’s wrists and then pray for their happiness and well-being.

People would prepare some delicious specialties to eat during festive days, such as deep-fried Mekong fish, papaya salad, and rice wine. Everything they do is aimed to express their gratitude to nature for the rich harvest.

When the traditional rituals and ceremonies are over, you can take part in the joyful dancing and singing activities. Foreigners are more than welcome!

Lao Elephant Festival

Time: Mid-February

In Laos, elephants have a lot of symbolical and historical significance. The festival is an opportunity to build a lasting relationship between Lao people and these amazing creatures. It also tries to draw attention upon the endangered status of the elephants all over Asia.

The festival has been held for 10 years. For three days, elephants will walk freely around the small town of Sayabouly, where the celebrations take place. Every year, more than 80.000 people gather to join the joyful celebrations.

The elephants, blessed by the monks, will parade through the city, while tons of different entertaining activities such as firework displays, dancing, musical plays, and movies can be watched. Different shows will depict how elephants are trained, bathed, and fed, and there will be the opportunity to ride an elephant. There is also a contest to award “The Elephant of the Year”.

Join the amazing celebrations and take part in this amazing festival that aims to save the most loved animal of Laos.

Pii Mai, the Lao New Year

Time: April 14th -16th

Pii Mai is the Lao New Year, an occasion of joyful celebrations that lasts for three days. It is the most important festival of the country. It takes place in April, the hottest month of the year.

The first day (April 14th) is the last day of the previous year. On this day water is used to wash houses, Buddha statues, monks, friends and anyone else. Students will first pour perfumed water on the elderly and on the monks to receive their blessing, then they will throw water at each other.

April 15th is the “no day”, since it falls between the old and the new year. The elders won’t allow young people to sleep or stay still, since this would mean bad luck. Instead, they are motivated to clean the houses or pour water on other elders.

April 16th is usually the first day of the new year, when a Baci ceremony is held: it is performed by a former Buddhist monk and it aims to call back the wandering kwan, the guard of human beings. People will gather to pray around flower trays. Everyone will chant and ask forgiveness for their past mistakes.

At the end of the Lao New Year there is a candlelight celebration held around the temples.

If you want to wish someone a Happy New Year, you can say: sôk di pi mai, souksan van pi mai or sabaidi pimai.

The biggest celebrations are held in Luang Prabang, where the party goes on for almost a week.

Boun Bang Fai - Rocket Festival

When: Mid-May

Boun Bang Fai, held near the beginning of the wet season, comes from old fertility rites and is an important occasion for Buddhists to make merits (i.e. to gain a protecting beneficial force). Farmers hope for good luck for the following harvest season, and many people see this as an opportunity to gain social prestige and to redistribute wealth.

The first day includes performances and processions of floats, and the second day sees the biggest part of the festival, a competitive firing of homemade rockets.

The rockets (bang fai) are similar to the Chinese fire arrows and are made of bamboo bongs. They must be boiled to kill all the insects that might otherwise eat the wood and destroy the rocket. The rockets come in various sizes, and they all compete in different categories. The largest ones, called ‘Lan’, are nine meters long and contain 120 kg of black powder.

Throughout the celebrations, hosts will prepare a variety of traditional food for their guests.

In Vientiane, the Capital, Boun Bang Fai is organized outside the city for safety reasons. The most famous events are held in the surrounding villages of Nason, Natham, Thongmang, Kern, and Pakhanhoung.

Boun Khao Pansa

Time: Early July

This holiday marks the beginning of the Buddhist Lent, that lasts from July to October. During this period, monks will stay inside the temples to study and meditate.

The legend behind this festival comes from the wanderings of Buddhist monks - they would not stop even during the wet season, treading on the rice fields and ruining the harvest. Because of this, farmers complained to the Buddha, who then decided to forbid the monks to leave the temples for three months.

It is a period of tranquility for the entire country: devout people won’t touch alcohol, won’t get married, and will strictly follow Buddha’s teachings. They will also donate food and other useful objects to the monks.

On Boun Khao Pansa, Buddhists will get up early and bring candles and food to the temples. The monks will chant, tell the story of the Lent, and recite the teachings of Buddha. The temples are full of devout people making their offerings to the monks. Perfume from incense sticks will fill the air and the lights of candles will drive away ignorance and darkness.

Lent ends in October, on a full moon, with a ceremony of monks receiving gifts.

Boun That Luang

That Luang is the name of one of the most important religious monuments in Laos. That Luang is in Vientiane, where the celebrations are held for three days during a full moon in November (the twelfth month of the Lunar Calendar).

That Luang was built in 1566. It has been destroyed and renovated multiple times, and it is sacred to Buddhists because they believe it contains a relict of the Buddha.

The festival sees a three-day religious ceremony, followed by a week of celebrations. The religious ceremony begins with a colorful parade of lay people, starting from Wat Si Muang (another important Buddhist temple built in 1563) heading towards That Luang.

When the formal part of the ceremony has ended, everyone tries to go inside the temples to light candles and incense and pray for good luck.

The day after, a huge crowd gathers at That Luang to pay homage to the stupa during a celebration known as taak baat. People will also make offerings to the monks. During the ceremony, everyone sits outside the temple in silence and listens to the prayers.

Then follows a picnic with boiled chicken and rice. In the afternoon, people will play tikhy, a game like hockey, played with a ball and long curved sticks. Usually, there will be two teams coming from different Vientiane municipalities.

The procession comes to an end under a full moon, with people gathering around That Luang for a candlelight procession.

Festival Tips

National holidays can be tricky; everyone is travelling, and it seems almost impossible to book a hotel or a train. However, with a little bit of preparation you will avoid all these problems. Check out the following tips:

  • Book in advance – festivals see a lot of people travelling across the country; plan your itinerary in advance and book accommodation and transportation to avoid problems.
  • Respect local customs to get the best out of your experience and not offend your host country.
  • Check festivals schedules; different activities are held on different days, and you don’t want to miss the biggest part of the celebrations.

The Asia Highlights Experience

Visiting a country when it’s celebrating its festivals is an amazing experience that can help you get closer with unfamiliar traditions and customs. Every city will be lively and full of people, and you need to plan your trip carefully. Booking with Asia Highlights will give you the chance to rely on our knowledgeable staff: we will tailor-make the perfect, hassle-free trip for you, assisting you 24hrs a day.

Check out the following links and find out more about our tours:

14- Day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Tour: Sync with Indochina's Heartbeat

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