BACI CEREMONY AND HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN LAOS

HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN LAOS

Major religious festivals occur several times a year. The beginning and end of the Lenten retreat period at the full moon of the eighth and eleventh months are occasions for special offerings of robes and religious articles to the monks. During Buddhist Lent, both monks and laity attempt to observe Buddhist precepts more closely. Monks must sleep at their own wat every night-- rather than being free to travel--and are expected to spend more time in meditation. Offerings to monks and attendance at full-moon prayers are also greater than at other times. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Vixakha Bouxa, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha at the full moon of the sixth month--usually May--corresponds with the rocket festival (boun bang fai), which heralds the start of the rains. The date of Boun Phavet, which commemorates the charity and detachment of Prince Vessantara, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, varies within the dry season, and, aside from its religious orientation, serves as an important opportunity for a village to host its neighbors in a twenty-four-hour celebration centering on monks reciting the entire scripture related to Vessantara. That Luang, a Lao-style stupa, is the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos and the location of the nationally important festival and fair in November. *

Laos has a water dousing festival like other Southeast Asian countries. During the festival water is thrown at people using buckets and basins. The Lao have added a new twist to this, instead of water they sometimes toss sticky, brightly colored tapioca. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

See Festivals

Baci Ritual

When Laos people have an important event they organize a Baci ceremony. The ceremony involves a feast and tying strings or cloth bracelets around the wrists to wish people good luck and a healthy life. Baci is common Lao ritual widely practiced throughout the country and by other ethnic groups as well. It is done for any big change in people's life, such as a wedding, the start of a big journey or the arrival of long absent guests.

Alan and Jennifer Davidson wrote: “A baci is a highly informal ceremony which may be held to mark any important occasion, such as a birthday, a wedding, the start or conclusion of a major journey (e.g. if someone is going abroad) or for greeting a distinguished visitor. It represents a mixture of Buddhism and spirit worship; and the person officiating may accordingly be either a monk or a 'magic-man'. In either event the centrepiece is a 'tree' which is usually made from banana leaves and flowers but may be composed of artificial materials. Symbolic foods surround it. The monk or 'magic-man' intones prayers and benedictions appropriate to the particular occasion. Then, after the person being honoured has had some symbolic food placed in his hand, white cotton strings are tied round his or her wrists, to the accompaniment of further benedictions. After this, all the participants, who have been sitting round the 'tree', are allowed to tie more strings around his or her wrists, while expressing their own specific good wishes; and are also permitted to tie strings around each other's wrists, so that the whole affair develops into a free-for-all from which everyone emerges with at least some strings. These strings must never be cut, and should not be removed for three days. Many people leave them on for longer, to be on the safe side; some indeed until they finally disintegrate months later. [Source: Alan and Jennifer Davidson <>]

The baasil ritual is usually presided over by an elder or monk called a maw phawn (blessing master). Participants sit around a tiered bowl or decanter with flowers, money, liquor, sweets and other objects. Sticking up from the bowl are branches with white cotton stings hanging from them. The ceremony begins with the maw phawn offering a greeting and reciting some chants in Lao and Pali that convey a special greeting to the honored guest. During the prayers everyone leans forward and touches the base of the bowl. After the chants have stopped everyone takes a white string from the branches and ties it around the wrist of the guest while chanting a short blessing. When this is completed small cups of lao lao are passed around and consumed, sometimes while the guests watch brief displays of the lam wong dance.

Guests tied with baci strings are expected to wear the strings for at least three days and ideally keep wearing them until they naturally fall off, which can take weeks. Over the years the baasil has evolved from a serious ritual into a friendly welcoming ceremony. Many Laotians wear bocci on an everyday basis, believing they ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune.

Meaning of Baci Ceremonies

The baasil (bocci or baci ) ritual is ceremony in which the 32 guardians spirit are symbolically bound to a person to keep him or her healthy and safe. It is related to a popular belief that links 32 khwan (guardian spirits) to mental and physical functions. Sometimes khwan wander from an individual. This is usually not a problem unless person is ill or embarking on a journey or new project and thus the baasli ceremony is held to make sure all the khwan are in their in their proper place.

Baci (also spelt basi) is specific ceremony in Laos which has been practiced for hundreds of years. The term commonly used is “sou khuan” which means “spirit enhancing or spirit calling”. The ceremony involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

Lao people believe that a human being is a union of thirty-two organs, each has a spirit or khuan (Lao word for spirit) to protect them. These spirits often wander outside the body causing unbalance of the soul which might lead to an illness. The tying of the white string represents tying of the 32 spirits to the body putting them back in harmony as well as bringing good luck and prosperity. ==

Soo Kuan represents a mixture of Buddhism and spirit worship, and the person officiating is usually an old man called the "mor phone". The mor phone intones prayers and benedictions appropriate to the particular occasion. Then after the person being honoured has had some symbolic food placed in his hand, white cotton strings are tied round his or her wrists, to the accompaniment of further benedictions. After this, all the participants, who have been sitting round the "tree", are allowed to tie more strings around his or her wrists, while expressing their own specific good wishes; and are also permitted to tie strings around each other's wrists, so that the whole affair develops into a free-for-all from which everyone emerges with at least some strings. These strings must never be cut.

Occasions for Baci Ceremonies

A "Soo Kuan"is one of the most important parts of Lao culture. It is held to mark any important occasion such as a wedding, birthday, illness, accident, moving to a new house, the start or conclusion of a major journey (e.g. if someone is going overseas). [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The baci ceremony is held on many different occasions or events through out the year. It can be held any day of the week though it has to be on a good day in the lunar calendar. These good days are known to elders, senior monks, or ex-monks. The ceremony can be held for both sad times and happy times. Some people might find it a little strange that there is a ceremony for sad occasions. ==

The baci ceremony is held for happy occasions like weddings, welcoming guests, Lao New Year, house warmings, home comings and other such occasions. A mother and her new born baby are given a baci, after the mother has recovered, to welcome the baby as well as to call back the spirits of the mother’s that might be wandering away through the child bearing. The ceremony is also held to raise spirits when someone is weak (physically and spiritually). After someone in the family has passed away a baci ceremony is held as it is believed to enhance the spirits and reinforce the harmony of the rest of family members after having been through sad time. ==

Baci Ceremony Etiquette

The baci ceremony is performed by Lao people to welcome you or send you off from their village, make a wedding ceremony sacred, as a gesture of reconciliation, or to help cure sickness. Most baci ceremonies require a phakwaan as the centerpiece, make from folded banana leaves decorated with flowers, adorned with cotton strings and a candle on the top. Other elements of the phakwaan are Lao whisky, boiled chicken, and a respected elder of the village to chant a mantra. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website]

If you are invited to join a baci ceremony, some basic rules are: 1) Don't not play with the phakwaan or sniff the flowers on it; 2) Never step over the phakwaan; 3) Sit with your legs folded to one side (not cross-legged) in front of the phakwaan; 4) Put your palms together when the respected elder is chanting; 5) At the end of the ceremony your hosts and friends will tie strings around your and each others wrists for long-life blessings, safe travels and many other good wishes.

For full effectiveness of your blessing you should leave the cotton strings on our wrists for 3 days. If you want to reduce the amount of strings on your wrists you can untie them, but you should leave 3 strings for the full 3 days. Strings should be untied, rather than cut from your wrists so as not to sever the good wishes bestowed upon you.

Boun Khao Phansa

Boun Khao Phansa marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent, which lasts from July until October. It is the traditional three month "rains retreat" during which Buddhist monks are expected to stay in their own temple to study the Buddha’s teaching as well as meditating. They are not allowed to travel anywhere or revert to being laymen. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

According to legend Buddha’s followers did not stop their wandering during the rainy season and people began to complain that they were trampling on the rice fields and worried they might damage seedlings or small creatures in the fields. When the Buddha heard these worries he forbade the monks to leave their temples for three months. ==

During this time devout people often abstain from alcohol. They pray for assistance and guidance to encourage merit and happiness in their lives. It encourages them to follow the five major Buddhist precepts: don’t kill animals; don’t steal or engage in corrupt acts; don’t commit adultery; don’t lie; and avoid drinking alcohol. Many take time away from work to make merit for deceased relatives. They also offer robes to the monks. ==

Early the morning of Boun Khao Phansa people prepare donations of food (particularly khaotom, rice, banana or pork wrapped in banana leaves) and necessities like soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes and towels for the monks. Most temples are very busy during this time with people making merit and giving their donations. At the end of these merit-making activities the monks will recite the teachings of Buddha and tell the history of Lent to temple goers. Later in the evening monks, novices and laypeople bring flowers and candles and walk around the central temple three times. ==

During this three month Buddhist lent monks and novices can't leave their monasteries to become lay people and traditionally lay people are not allowed to get married until the end of the Buddist Lent or Awk Phansa. Lent ends on the full moon in October the Kathin ceremony when monks receive gifts. These are the most usual months for ordination and for men to enter the monkhood for short periods before they marry and are marked by numerous ordination ceremonies. ==

Boun Awk Phansa

Boun Awk Phansa is the last day of the Buddhist lent. It occurs in October, three lunar months after Khao Phansa on the 15th day of the 11th month of the lunar calendar. It is a day of many celebrations, most notably the boat race festival held in Vientiane. On the first day at dawn, donations and offerings are made at temples around the country; in the evening, candlelight processions are held around the temples and it is the celebration of lai heua fai or Loi ka thong, when everyone sends small lighted ‘boats’ made of banana stems or banana leaves decorated with candles and flowers down the rivers. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

These are said to pay respect to the Buddha and to thank the mother of rivers for providing water for our lives. Some believe that the lai heua fai procession is an act to pay respect to nagas that lives in the rivers, while others send the lighted boats down the river to ask for blessing and to float bad luck of the past year away enabling the good luck to flow in. Most towns with a river bank nearby will engage in this lovely ceremony. In bigger towns there are also processions of lighted boats, and the ceremony is more popular especially among young romantic couples. Villagers who live far from rivers set up model boats (made of banana stems) decorated with flowers and candlelight, while others simply light up some candles in front of their houses and do their little prayer wishing for good luck. This colorful rituals have been carried on by Lao people for thousands of years. ==

In addition, the evening before the boat race is the day the celebrated Naga fireballs are supposed to appear. The Naga fireballs are a phenomenon peculiar to the Mekong. The Naga is a mythical water dragon believed to live in the Mekong and on the night of 15th day of 11th month in the Lao lunar calendar at the end of Buddhist Lent he is supposed to shoot up pink-red fireballs to signify the occasion. Some believe, while others doubt they are real. Still today there is a festival surrounding this time and certain areas of both the Thai and Lao sides of the river are packed out with willing sightseers, who also take the time to enjoy the multitude of food and drink stands which spring up to cater for them during their wait. ==

This extraordinary phenomenon occurs in the area of the Mekong River stretching over 20km between Pak-Ngeum district, about 80km south of the Lao capital Vientiane, and Phonephisai district in Nong Khai province, Thailand. On the Lao side, some people say they can see the fireballs floating in the area of the ponds and rice fields near their villages. On the Thai side, the fireball shoots up in a pond locally known as Nong Pra Lay, residents say. In Laos you can hire a taxi or truck to take you and from the site, but be prepared for traffic jams and crowds. ==

The day of the boat racing festival in Vientiane is spectacular. This year (2010), the Boun Awk Phansa day (the day the Buddhist lent ends) falls on the 23th October and the Vientiane boat racing day is on the 24th. The town comes alive with noise and festivity as the teams make their way to the river either by truck or walking, banging drums and singing. The races start around 9am when the heats kick off. Thousands of spectators cram along the river banks and cheer their teams. The streets are lined with food stalls, sideshows where you can win small prizes and stalls selling all manner of clothes and other items. The final happens around mid-afternoon, by which time everyone is normally quite merry. ==

Pimai Lao (Lao New Year)

Pimai Lao (the Lao New Year, mid April) is one of the most important dates in the Lao calendar. As well as being a time of celebration and endless fun, it has also become a celebration of Lao identity, the reinforcement of family bonds and an opportunity to reflect on the year ahead. Pi Mai Lao is the liveliest holiday of the year and one that everyone looks forward to, as it is a time when many people visit their families all over the country. It takes place around 13th to 15th of April, the hottest part of the year, which is why no one really minds being constantly wet from the water being thrown everywhere. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The first day is the last day of the old year. Perfume, water and flowers are prepared for the Lao New Year. In temples all over the country, Buddha images are taken down from their permanent places and placed on special temporary easy-to-access places within the wat (temple) compounds so villagers can pour perfumed water on them. They then collect the water that runs off the Buddha images and take it home to pour on family members, friends and relatives. This is believed to bless, clean and purify the receivers before entering the Lao New Year. ==

The second day of the Lao New Year festival is the "day of no day", a day that falls in neither the old year nor the new year. Houses and villages are properly cleaned on the second day. Traditionally elders will not allow young people to take nap or stay still on the second day as it’s believed that if one sleeps or stays still one will get sick in the coming year. They encourage young people to clean their places and go out to pour water on other elders in the village and wish them well, and finally get wet themselves. This is a way to clean and send bad things away with the old year. ==

The last day of the festival marks the start of the new year. This day many families will hold a Baci at their houses to welcome Lao New Year as well as to wish their elders good health and long life. Some might respectfully ask for forgiveness from their elders for things that they did in the past year that might have hurt their feelings unintentionally. And at the same time they give the elders gifts. ==

In late afternoon or evening of the last day, in the temples, the Buddha images are moved back to their permanent homes. On that same evening devotees go to wats to listen to the monks chanting as an act to ask for forgiveness from the monks as well as from the Buddha images for what they did (pouring water on them) in this past few days that might have accidentally touched them (monks and Buddha are not to be touched). After that, a vien tien – a candlelight procession – takes place around the wat and that is the end of the Lao New Year celebration. ==

Tips for a great Pimai experience: 1) Pimai Lao celebrations are hugely popular, so book flights and accommodation well in advance. 2) You are certain to get wet during Pimai Lao. Always keep passports, mobile phones and other valuables in a waterproof container, or leave them somewhere safe. 3) During Laos’ hottest season, most welcome getting soaking wet. But if you know that’s something you wouldn’t enjoy, don’t plan to visit the middle of April. 4) Don’t forget to wish everyone a happy Lao New Year—“souksan van pi mai or sabidee pimai”—and smile while you get wet.[Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website]

Pi Mai Traditions

The last day of the year is traditionally a day of renewal, the main symbol of which is water. Buddha images are washed, temples repainted and homes cleaned from top to bottom. In the afternoon, young people pour water on the hands of their elders and ask for their blessing in the year ahead. Much like a New Year toast in western cultures, this is sometimes followed by a short speech from parents or grandparents. During the speech, elders give their blessing to their family, as well as highlighting important family events such as births, deaths or marriages. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

The blessing of relatives, friends and even strangers with water continues throughout the festival. Traditionally, you wish someone ‘Happy New Year’ (‘Sok Dii Pimai’), before pouring water over their head, symbolizing the washing away of sins committed in the past year. These days, water is also shot through water guns or thrown from buckets and pans, creating and enormous water-fight that’s impossible to avoid. ~~

Water is for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by. Students first respectfully pour water on their elders, then monks for blessings of long life and peace, and last of all they throw water on each other. The water is perfumed with flowers or natural perfumes. Some people prefer flowers in the water to give a pleasant smell, as well as adding cologne/perfume. The idea of watering came from the legend of King Kabinlaphom, whose seven daughters kept his severed head in a cave. The daughters would visit their father's head every year and perform a ritual to bring happiness and good weather. Sometimes people also throw white powder on each other during the celebrations. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

Sand is brought to the temple grounds and is made into stupas or mounds, then decorated before being given to the monks as a way of making merit. There are two ways to make the sand stupas. One way is to go to the river bed and build them using river sand, and the other way is to bring sand to the wat. Sand stupas are decorated with flags, flowers, white lines, and splashed with perfumed water. Sand stupas symbolise the mountain, Phoukao Kailat, where King Kabinlaphom's head was kept by his seven daughters. ==

Another way to make merit at this time is to set animals free. The Lao believe that even animals need to be free. The most commonly freed animals are tortoises, fish, crabs, birds, eels, and other small animals. Flowers are gathered to decorate images of the Buddha. In the afternoons people collect fresh flowers. Senior monks take the younger monks to a garden filled with flowers, where they pick flowers and bring back to the wat to wash. People who didn't participate in the flower picking bring baskets to wash the flowers so the flowers can shine with the Buddha statues. ==

For many Lao people, the belief in kwan (spirits which inhabit the human body, as well as animals, plants and inanimate objects) are an important part of the Lao New Year. On the first day of the new year, with transition comes the risk of the kwan leaving the body, exposing them to any number of bad omens. To allow the kwan to return to the body, a ceremony known as a Baci or Soo Kwan is carried out. First, offerings are made with participants sitting around a table. A chant led by an important figure in the village or family is then repeated collectively to call the kwan to return. Praticipants then tie white thread around each other’s wrists, symbolically binding the kwan to the body, while wishing them good fortune in the year ahead. The ceremony ends by eating a small meal together. ~~

Pimai Lao in Luang Prabang

Pi Mai Lao is particularly spectacular in Luang Prabang as this is where there are many parades and other festivities, which normally last about a week. The religious highlight is when the revered Prabang Buddha image is carried through the streets in a golden house supported by two long poles, carried by young men. Leading the parade are two red-faced mythical characters called Pou Gneu and Gna Gneu (Grandpa and Grandma Gneu). At parade’s end, the statue is placed at Vat May where it rests for the three-day festival. Throughout this time people pour water scented with flowers over it. There is an annual beauty pageant in Luang Prabang called the Nang sangkhane pageant. There are seven contestants, each one symbolising one of King Kabinlaphom's seven daughters and they ride down the street, sometimes on elephants. In the evenings, there will be processions of nagas, lanterns and many traditional performances.[Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

Although the Lao new year is celebrated in joyous spirit throughout the country, nowhere hosts more ancient traditions and colorful pageantry than the northern heritage city of Luang Prabang. Although officially a three day festival, the party always goes on for at least a week. For tourists, most of the highlights of Pimai Lao take place on the second day of festivities, known as ’the day of no day’; a day of transition that is neither part of the old nor the new year. During Pimai Lao the party goes on until late. But be prepared to get soaked. Flour is also added to the water, so expect to resemble a half-baked pizza before the end of the day![Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

Don’t miss the procession of Prabang, one of Laos’ most celebrated Buddha images, which gave Luang Prabang its name in 1512 (‘Luang’ meaning great or oryal). The statue is carried in procession from the former Royal Palace to Vat Mai, followed by hundreds of monks in their bright orange shrouds. It’s when the statue is installed at Vat Mai that people can pour water on it, before collecting it as sacred water for blessing friends and family. On arrival at the temple, Prabang is placed in a sim (an alter similar to a chapel) outside the temple. There, he receives a final blessing from the alleged ancestors of the first Lao people. ~~

No Lao festival would be complete without its beauty contest, of which Nang Sangkhan (Miss New Year) is the most famous of all. The procession of the beauty queen is spectacular and hugely popular. From across the country teenage hopefuls sponsored by leading Lao brands, flock to Luang Prabang hoping to catch the eye of the judges. Traditionally, she must be a virgin and fifteen or over. The winner is announced on 11th April. The new Nang Sangkhan is then carried in procession on an elaborately decorated float (14th and 15th April). ~~

Boun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival)

The Boun Bang Fai, or Rocket Festival, in May marks the sixth month of the lunar calendar. During the festival, rockets are fired into the air to ask the god of rain to help nature a good harvest free from drought, floods or pests. The festival is a call for rain and a celebration of fertility. In the afternoon, people gather in the fields on the outskirts of villages and towns to launch self-made fireworks rockets. Different communities compete for the best decorated and the highest traveling rocket. Men disguised as women perform vaudeville acts using wooden phalli in order to anger the gods. As revenge, the gods are expected to send thunderstorms.

Traditionally, rockets are made by stuffing gunpowder into elaborately decorated bamboo. But today, many different materials are used, including glass or metal piping. They come in a variety of sizes from very small to very large. When ready, the rockets are carried to a communal launch-pad. There are numerous types, each serving an individual purpose. The rocket designed to carry prayers to the rain god during Boun Bang Fai, is known as a Hang or Meun-Saen. The Ma is used to mark the passing of someone important. And Chi Nay, Ta Lai and Phu, mark the beginning of important ceremonies and festivals. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

Prior to Boun Bang Fai, each village puts together a committee to organize all aspects of the festival, including inviting other villages, introducing rules and safety measures and organizing pirzes for the best rockets. On the day of the festival, the Boun Bang Fai becomes a toughly contested completion, which generally only bamboo rockets are allowed to enter. First, each rocket is inspected and categorized. Scores are given for the highest flyer, the most beautiful decoration, and the most entertaining team; a category in which just about anything goes, from elaborate masks to men wearing women’s clothes, while women dance and sing. If any of the rockets fail to explode, the team’s technician and leader are forced to drink muddy water or Satho (rice whisky). ~~

Throughout the celebrations, hosts prepare a variety of traditional food for their guests. These days, the size and location of the event is controlled due to numerous safety concern, including limited space and overlaps with aircraft routes. But nevertheless, most continue to celebrate the festival in one way or another. In Vientiane, Boun Bang Fai is organized in the outskirts of the city of avoid damage to property and help keep participants safe. The most famous events are held in the surrounding villages of Nason, Natham, Thongmang, Kern, Pakhanhoung and many others. ~~

One Person Killed at the Rocket Festival in 2013

In 2013, one person was killed after being struck in the head by a rocket. The Vientiane Times reported: “Officials are advising the organisers of rocket festivals in Vientiane to keep detailed records of the people who make each rocket and the materials from which it is constructed. The move comes after a rocket killed a bystander in Borlek village, Xaythany district, Vientiane, last weekend. Head of Village Security Pasith Theb-outhoum yesterday called on festival organisers to make notes about all the rockets brought for launch and asked for safety campaigns to be introduced. “We’ve just experienced a terrible accident and we don’t want another one to happen in this area. Right now rocket festivals are taking place in several villages in this neighbourhood each weekend,” he said. [Source: Vientiane Times. May 17, 2013 /*/]

“The tragedy occurred during a festival in Sangsay and Borlek villages. The rocket that caused the accident was first brought for launch in Sangsay village but it failed to ignite so it was taken to Borlek village. “When the rocket was brought to Borlek village, the makers asked if it could compete against other rockets in the village but there were no other contestants so they asked if they could launch it just to pray for rain,” Mr Pasith said. /*/

“The organisers agreed to the launch but unfortunately the rocket didn’t shoot up into the sky and plunged back down into a group of spectators just 50 metres from the launch platform. “It rose about 80 metres into the sky before falling back to the ground. It descended directly towards a bunch of onlookers, who scattered as soon as they saw it plummeting downwards. It passed very close to three people who were slightly injured but it struck a fourth person on the head and he died instantly,” Mr Pasith said. /*/

“The organisers know where the rocket came from and who it belonged to so they are carrying out investigations among everyone involved to get more information. Officials running the festival apologised to the victim’s family and pledged to implement safety measures in the future. Event organisers and officials plan to place rocket launch platforms at least 100 metres from spectators in the future, as well as making people aware of the need for safety precautions. /*/

Boun Suang Hua (Laos Traditional Boat Racing Festival)

Boat racing is a local festival that takes place every year all around the country during September and October. Most Laos traditional boat racing festivals take place before the end of Buddhist lent. Dates vary from year to year, but most festivals are held on weekends. Traditionally, after the rice planting season (toward the end of rainy season) villages on the river banks prepare themselves for the upcoming boat racing festival in and around their communities. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

In Luang Prabang,Boun Suang Hua, or the Boat Race Festival is held on Hor Khao Padap Din, the Day of the Commemoration of the Dead (in August). In Vientiane it is held the day after the End of Buddhist Lent. Both are important social and sports events witnessed by huge crowds. One week before the race, Fa Ngum Quai (along Fa Ngum Road) is taken over by stalls selling all kinds of goods and foods or games, and loud music is played all day and late into the night. On the day of the race, Vientiane City of finials visit all the sanctuaries of the Guardian Spirits of the City to make offerings. Request permission to hold the race and ask for their protection during the events. Big crowds gather along the banks of the Mekong River to watch and cheer on the boats. Next to the official stand a traditional orchestra plays to accompany each race and accelerate the tempo as the boats closes in on the finish line, dramatically adding to the momentum. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

Dragon boats (long boats built specifically for racing purposes) are taken down from their houses onto the rivers. Teams of rowers start practising weeks or months before the boat racing season arrives. In the countryside where Lao tradition still runs deep, every household in the host village prepares special food and drinks. One type of food that almost every household prepares for their guests are noodles (Khao Poon in Lao). As guests arrive at their houses they are offered some noodles and something to drink. This tradition has been carried on for generations and it’s also practised in boun pavet, and boun bang fai (rocket festival). It is still seen in city of Vientiane, but it is not as common and normally only happens among close families and friends. ==

Apart from providing food and drinks, the host village also needs to build temporary shelters for the invited guests and the rowing crews, to stay the night before the racing day. These shelters are as simple as bamboo huts or tents. Each family in the village contributes basic stuff like mattresses, pillows and blankets. Generally all the rowing crews are provided with food, drinks and places to stay free of charge. This is the responsibility of every household in the host village as they are happy and excited to take part in the festival. ==

At the temple, the night, or sometimes two nights, before the race, an open air bar and dance floor are set up temporarily. All kinds of liquor (beer Lao, Lao lao, or whisky) is sold and a live band plays. Teenagers, men and women from the host village and from villages nearby, as well as the crews enjoy themselves drinking and dancing into the night. ==

Boun Suang Hua Boats and Races

Traditional racing boats are carved using one single tree. The boats belong to a village and are usually kept in a shelter on the temple grounds and come out only once a year for the race. Several days before the race the boats are cleaned and presented with offerings because the boats are considered sacred items. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

These boats can hold approximately fifty paddlers. The morning is devoted to women’s crews and the afternoon to men’s crews. The starting point is two kilometers upstream and the competition is between two boats at a time. The loser is eliminated. After the final race, all the boats participate in a final competition/show, which is rather spectacular. The winners receive a trophy, a silver cup and cash. While the boat racing has become a focus of entertainment, athletics and commerce, the Boat Festival is really an homage to water divinities and the Nagas, who are protector of the country. ~~

In the morning, the races start around 8 or 9am. Usually two boats race down the river for each heat. There are normally six to 10 boats participating in each festival and sometimes more if there isn’t another boat race festival taking place on that same day in nearby areas. There are prizes for winners, though they are not much, because the heart of the races is not the prize but the fun everyone has. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

The races finish in the late afternoon, but that isn’t the end of the festival. Regardless of the result of the races, the celebration carries on until late or until everyone is either drunk or exhausted. Well… this is a big event for locals and is only celebrated once a year, so they all want to make the most of it after working hard on their farms. Usually after the traditional boat racing festival (village level), there is a huge boat racing festival that everyone is looking forward to. This is known to most locals as Vientiane boat racing festival. Many villages around Vientiane with racing boat entry the race at this festival. ==

Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

The biggest and the most significant boat racing festival (Boun Xuang Heua) in Laos is held at the end of Buddhist lent (Awk Phansa) in Vientiane, on the Mekong River. This is known as Vientiane Boat Racing Festival and it is more or less a national festival. The Vientiane Boat Racing Festival is held every year, starting from the 15th day in the 11th month in lunar calendar. The actual race is held on the 16th day, with heats starting early in the morning. Over 20 dragon boats and rower/paddler teams line up for the race on the Mekong River. The entrants come from all around Laos to compete in this significant festival. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com ==]

There are usually three categories of boats: sport for men; traditional for men; and traditional for women. Teams of rowers are usually sponsored either by big name companies, such as Beer Lao, and telecom companies or by ministries or organisations in Vientiane. Fa Ngum road, the road along the Mekong River bank, and other streets leading to the river are lined with stalls days before the actual festival starts. These sell all kind of clothes, food (especially grilled chicken and sticky rice cooked in bamboo pipes), fruits, and drinks. There are also sideshows, such as pop-the-balloons, where small prizes can be won all over the place. ==

On the race day, the town comes alive with noise and festivity as the teams make their way to the river either by truck or walking, banging drums and singing. The streets to and along the Mekong River bank are very crowded as thousands of spectators cram along to cheer their teams. Lovers of this sport make sure they get the best spot on the river bank. When the boats are racing down the river, you will hear people cheering, yelling, and banging drums along the river. ==

Usually the races start with the women’s teams, followed by the men’s teams. The final round happens in the afternoon and sometimes it carries on until late in the afternoon. The winner in each category receives prize money and a trophy. After the races finish, the prizes are presented to the winners by high ranking officials. The races and the prize presentation are forecasted live on the Lao national TV channel. ==

How to join a team: Usually it’s quite hard to find out how to go about doing something in Laos unless you know some key people as events are often not advertised. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) assembles a team to take part in the race every year. This is an open mixed-gender team and many locals and expats working/living in Vientiane join in the fun even if they do not work for the MRC. There is a small fee to join though (I mean small) and that covers the cost of a T-shirt and a cap as well as food and drinks on the race day. If you are interested contact: +856 021 263 263, email: mrcs@mrcmekong.org. It is easier if you know someone who works at MRC. Ask them to introduce you to the organiser. Either way you have to act early, at least one or two months before the festival, as it is important to join in the practice sessions. ==

There is also a women’s international team, which rows with the women from one of the local villages. Details about how to join this team are normally posted in local shops or sometimes in the events section of the local paper, the Vientiane Times. This team welcomes any women, experienced or not and provides a good way for people to join in at a local level as you will be included in village activities as well sometimes such as traditional boat racing festival at village level. ==

Lai Hua Fai (Festival of the Boats of Light)

Lai Hua Fai means “floating boats of light downstream”. This festival is celebrated on the night of the End of Lent. It is held all over Laos, especially where there is a river. The festival in Vientiane attracts big crowds of devotee and tourists but the one in Luang Prabang is even more spectacular. Every family makes a small round container, using banana leaves on a section of banana trunk. They put flowers, incense sticks, candles, betel nuts and other condiments for chewing and sometimes food and money. At the bank of the river, they light the candles, say prayers and send the boat of light floating away. The spectacle of thousands of boats of light with their twinkling candles on the Mekong River is most moving. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

This rite has several aims. One is in homage to the river, especially the Mekong River, which literally means Mother of All Things. It is also to ask the river and all divinities inhabiting it for forgiveness for disrespect or misuse of its water. It is also a way to send away all negativity such as sickness, bad luck, shortcoming and failure. ~~

Lai Hua Fai is also aimed at sending offerings to the dead. But most of all, it is a homage to the Lord Buddha. Temples and villages build their boats of light, which are much bigger and more elaborately decorated. Two types of boats of light are built for that night: the normal Hua Fai, which is to be floated down the river, and Hua Fai Khowk, which will stay on the temple ground. Both are made of bamboo and coloured paper and can be several meters long. In Luang Prabang, each temple and each village send a boat to join the procession on the main street leading to Vat Xieng Thong. Once at this beautiful 16th century temple, the boats are lined up and a jury awards prizes to the most beautiful boats. After that, one by one, the boats are brought down the staircases of Vat Xieng Thong, reminiscent of a scene from the film Fitzcaraldo when people carry a boat from the mountain down to the river. Then they are delicatedly put on the water and floated down the Mekong River among thousands of small individual banana leaf skiffs in a breathtaking sea of lights. ~~

Boun That Luang (That Luang Festival)

That Luang, The Grand Stupa, in Vientiane is sanctuary to the Buddha’s hair and bosom bone. It was built over an ancient stupa in the 16th century, by King Setthathirath when he moved the capital of the Lane Xang Kingdom from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. It has since become the symbol of Laos and is profoundly revered by all Lao People. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

The That Luang religious festival last three days It starts with the wax castle procession at Vat Simuong and end with a procession around the stupa. Thousands of monks and tns of thousands of pilgrims come from all over the country and even from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to attend the festival. ~

One week before the religious festival, a huge international trade fair features goods and exhibitions from all over the world. The religious festival starts with the procession at Vat Simuong to worship the City’s foundation pillar and pay homage to Nya Mae Simuong or Lady Simuong, a pregnant woman, inspired by the divinities, jumped into the hold in which the city pillar was about to be planted and was thus crushed to death. She has become, since, the protector of Vientiane and inhabitants devote a special cult to her. The procession gather Phasat Pheung (wax castles) of banana trunks and decorated with flowers made of wax. The Phasat, which re commissioned by families or villages in and procession around Vientiane, are carried three times around the Sin and then offered to the temple. This procession is very spontaneous and colourful and ends with fireworks, which symbolizes an offering of flowers of light to Lord Buddha. ~

The next day, at 1:00 pm, a bigger and more elaborate procession brings more wax castles through the Eastern Gate of the That Luang cloister. The wax castles are carried three times around the Grand Stupa and offered to the shrine. On the last day of the festival, as early as 5:00 am, thousands of devotees gather in the cloister and around it, on the esplanade for the Takbat, the morning offering to the monks. After the ceremony, each family gather at stalls to eat Khao Poun, the national rice noodle soup and Tom Kai, chicken soup. Early in the afternoon, there is the ritual game of Teekhee, a polo game traditionally played in the Kingdom of Vientiane and believed to be exported to Burma and later to England. In the past, the game was between a team of officials and a team of villagers ~~

Ounkham Pimmata wrote in the Vientiane Times, “The whole country looks forward to this most important of Lao festivals, and people come from far and near to revere and celebrate That Luang. Many Lao living abroad come back to visit their families in Laos during That Luang festival period. I'd also recomment anyone who plans to visit the country to come this time of year.” [Source: Ounkham Pimmata, Vientiane Times, Asia News Network, November 16, 2009 *-*]

“The festival draws to a close under a full moon, when people from all over Laos will crowd around the Pha That Luang (stupa) for one last candlelight procession, bearing posies of flowers, incense and candles. Normally these days there are also firework displays to mark the end of the celebration. Also during That Luang festival there are trade fairs and concerts and funfairs held around the esplanade. *-*

That Luang Festival Processions, Rituals and Games

Ounkham Pimmata wrote in the Vientiane Times, “The festival starts with a colourful candlelight ‘wax castle' (phasat ) procession which starts in the evening before at Wat Simeuang, where groups gather and walk three times around the main hall of worship in honour of the Vientiane city pillar, which is located at this temple. As the home of the city’s founding pillar, the Wat is considered one of the most important in Vientiane. According to legend, when the pillar was laid, a pregnant woman, Nang Si inspired by supernatural forces, threw herself to death under the pillar as it was being dropped into position. Nang Si is now seen as the guardian of the city and every year homage is paid to her and Lord Buddha during the festival. As well as the castles, they carry candles, incense and flowers, beat drums and cymbals and sing as they walk around the wat. [Source: Ounkham Pimmata, Vientiane Times, Asia News Network, November 16, 2009 *-*]

“The “wax castles” are not really castles, but tall creations of yellow “trees”, with wax petals and which are festooned with gold paper and kip notes. The procession continues the next afternoon when thousands of people gather to bring their glittering creations to pay homage at That Luang. People wear their best clothes for this procession and there is also a parade of men and women dressed in various Lao ethnic costumes who dance and play traditional music and songs as they approach the stupa. On reaching the stupa, the worshippers slowly walk around it three times in a clockwise direction, led by monks from Wat That Luang chanting the ancient words of Buddha. The so-called wax castles have been a part of Lao lifestyle for many years, and bringing one to Pha That Laung on this occasion is believed to bring considerable merit. *-*

“The following morning a huge crowd assembles at dawn That Luang to give alms to hundreds of monks who come here from around the country, and to pay homage to the stupa. The celebrations known as taak baat begin at 7am in the grounds of the That Luang, but crowds begin arriving at the stupa before 5am to secure the best positions inside the cloister, to pray and prepare their offerings. Both inside and outside the cloister, That Luang’s esplanade is full of monks who assemble to receive their offerings. *-*

“During the taak baat ritual inside the cloister and on the esplanade outside, everyone sits quietly and listens to the prayers. Some people pour water on the ground to ask Ngamae Thorani (a female earth goddess) to tell the spirits of their relatives to come and receive their offerings, while others release birds from cages to make merit. Everyone tries to go inside the stupa when the formal part of the ceremony has ended to give alms to the monks, to light candles and incense and pray for good luck. A traditional picnic follows, when people eat boiled chicken and rice and catch up with friends and families. *-*

Then in the afternoon, everyone will gather on the esplanade for the traditional game of tikhy, which is played with a ball and long curved sticks, resembling a game of hockey. The game used to be played by two opposing groups, one symbolising the people and the other the establishment. Nowadays, it is considered a more light-hearted sporting event between two teams of the Vientiane municipality. Nevertheless, the procession to accompany the ball (louk khee) from the stupa to the grounds and back. *-*

That Luang Festival Wax Castles

Ounkham Pimmata wrote in the Vientiane Times, “Almost 70 years ago, a young boy by the name of Okad joined his parents and his community to worship at the home of Vientiane’s city pillar and the That Luang stupa. Now an elderly man, he smiles broadly as he recounts past festivals. He has been familiar with festival customs since he was a child, as his family often made colourful conical structures based around banana stems and known as Pasaatpheung (wax castle). These have long been an essential part of the That Luang festival in Laos. [Source: Ounkham Pimmata, Vientiane Times, Asia News Network, November 16, 2009 *-*]

“The wax and banana leaf structures are thought to somewhat resemble a castle or stupa, from which the name Pasaatpheung is derived. The wax castles are not made just to pay homage at the Vientiane city pillar and the That Luang stupa. They can be made at any time, whether for a festival, a visit to Simeuang Temple or a private ceremony held at home, such as an ordination. The so-called wax castles have been a part of Lao lifestyle for many years, and bringing one to the stupa on this occasion is believed to bring considerable merit. *-*

“Each year Mr Okad goes to Simeuang Temple for the first stage of the That Luang festival wax castle procession. Before heading there he takes pleasure in shaping and decorating his elaborate wax castle. He will make it from materials as diverse as banana stems, flowers, kip notes, books, pens, pencils, incense, wax, flowers, and toothpaste, before proudly parading the finished article in a joyous procession. *-*

“A resident of Simeuang village, Aunt Keo, said traditionally people made wax castles from banana stems, but today these structures are so large that people often use wood and foam rubber to build them. Yet traditionalists still prefer to keep theirs small, taking them along with a silver bowl full of offerings to join the parade.This custom is well known among Lao people. Aunt Keo said she learnt how to make wax castle by helping her parents to make them to sell to other people. The business continues to this day, and each year she sells approximately 300 wax castles during the That Luang festival. Aunt Keo is the recipient of this wonderful heritage. She uses candle wax mixed with honey to produce the yellow discs that cover the castles and resemble flowers. *-*

“Mr Okad said if believers want to make their offerings especially colourful, they should pin on kip notes and sweets to achieve the desired effect. The wax castles are considered to be a worthwhile offering to Buddha. Legend has it that a monkey once offered honey to Buddha, and was reborn as a human. This is symbolised through the use of honey in the wax. Vientiane residents bring their wax castles to the That Luang stupa in homage each year because they believe the stupa contains a relic of Buddha’s bones.However, Simeuang Temple also has an important place in the hearts of Lao Buddhists. In celebration of major events such as the That Luang festival, locals often hold a ceremony to pay homage to the city pillar located here, which dates from the time of King Khounbulom. *-*

“During That Luang festival, thousands of people gathered at Simeuang Temple for a grand procession on the 14th day of the waxing moon. They carried saplings, eight wax castles, white and yellow robes, rice, salt, incense, candles, sand, banana leaves, four swords, a firearm and other items traditionally presented at the pillar, which is believed to house the female guardian spirit of Vientiane. Monks also gathered to follow the long-standing Buddhist practice of giving offerings to the pillar, such as sweets, fruits, and the traditional Lao skirt (sinh). Fireworks were set ablaze and all activities by Lao people aimed to show their respect to the city pillar and pray for their future happiness. *-*

“The next day, another wax castle procession was conducted which started from Simeuang Temple to That Luang Stupa with the distance of 3km. Government officials also joined worshippers from across the country, with everyone dressed in traditional clothes and wearing sashes, as the parade proceeds slowly towards That Luang stupa. Bands of musicians accompanied the procession. Young people wore their traditional ethnic clothing and dance as the processions moves forward. Once they reach the stupa, the procession was led by monks from That Luang, who chanted the ancient words of Buddha as they are followed by worshippers. After placing the wax castles around the stupa, people lighted candles and incense to ask for blessings from Buddha for happiness in their life. *-*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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