The people of Laos are internationally known for their social nature, a generally friendly people, who love to get together, drink, eat and celebrate. It is no wonder then that their year is clearly marked by frequent festivities; it seems that there is always something to celebrate here!
There is a sense of the natural and spiritual combined: the traditional Laos calendar is a mix of solar and lunar demarcations; the year is delineated by solar movements, whilst each month follows lunar cycles. In keeping with this idea, the festivals are generally either of agricultural or religious origin.
Agriculture has always been a key component of Laos’ cultural and economic system. Until the early 1990s it was the main basis for Laos’ entire economy. Now there is some deviation but it still has a stable foothold in the country and agriculture runs strong in the communities and is the foundation for much of Laos’ calendar of festivity.
Laos has a strong Buddhist tradition; for over 600 years the main religion has been Theravada Buddhism, a slightly more conservative branch of Buddhism that is practised throughout Southeast Asia, which can be broadly defined as teaching ethics, discipline, meditation and wisdom. Animist beliefs – giving spiritual essence to non-human entities – are also widespread amongst the Laos population.
Thanks to the rich agriculture and religious heritage of Laos, a wonderfully vibrant festival calendar has developed in the country and below are a few samples of what is on offer.
Pi Mai, or “New Year”, is the biggest festival in the Laotian calendar where the beginning of new lunar year is celebrated. These festivities see a lot of celebrations taking place throughout the country, with water fights, parades, dancing and singing. Held in mid-April, the celebrations generally last several days, meaning the entire country grinds to a halt, so it’s hard not to get involved!
These festivities are often characterised by impassioned water fights, in which families are known to arm themselves with water guns and drive around soaking passersby. It can seem a bit daunting at first, with so many people running around, buckets of water in hand but don’t be alarmed – it is all meant in good will, with the aim of promoting good health and good fortune. Just go with it and you will find it is a good laugh.
There is also a key religious element to Pi Mai. This is a time when Buddha statues are washed with holy water and there are water pouring ceremonies in temples. People also clean out their houses and wear new clothes; this is a time of spiritual cleansing and rejuvenation, getting ready to start the new year with a clean slate.
Boun Bang Fai
Boun Bang Fai, or “Rocket Festival”, is a celebration that takes place six months into the Laos lunar calendar. These festivities take place in different villages at different times, as if the celebrations were rolling through the country, so that villagers can attend each other’s festivities. Host villages will create feasts of traditional fare for their guests and the festivities have the dual role of celebrating fertility and also calling for rain. Homemade fireworks are sent into the sky in the hopes of inducing thunderstorms.
The rockets were traditionally intricately carved pieces of bamboo stuffed with gunpowder, however, today, as you can imagine, they are made from a wide range of materials, including metal pipes and glass. The rockets are designed to carry prayers to the rain god, in hopes of bringing showers, dispel drought and nurture crops.
When all the rockets are assembled they are taken to a launch pad and set off at a safe distance from the crowd, beginning a hotly contested competition as to who has created the most spectacular vessel. There are prizes for highest flyer, most beautiful design and best show and the teams will perform songs and dance in elaborate costume and masks.
An interesting additional part of the celebrations include men dressing as women and performing vaudeville acts using a wooden phallus as an attempt to enrage the gods, with the hope that they will bring rain as a punishment.
Boun Ok Phansa / Boat Racing Festival
Marking the end of the three month lent that is observed in traditional Buddhist practises, at the end of October there are large celebrations throughout Laos that also mark the end of the rainy season. The legend from which these practises originate is the story that Buddha journeyed to heaven to visit his deceased mother, and remained there for three months, and upon his return was welcomed back to earth with fabulous celebrations.
During the day people make donations and pay their respects at local temples, and in evening colourful floats are set adrift down the river adorned with flowers, candles and incense. Amongst the feasting, partying and meditative practises, traditional boat races are held up and down the country along Laos’ many rivers. Wonderful, ornate boats race along candle and flower lined sections of river, making for a spectacular display.
The boats are generally carved from a single tree, and each village has its own boat that can hold up to fifty people, making them quite a feat of creation. Each race takes place over approximately two kilometres of water, with women’s and men’s races taking place in the morning and afternoon, respectively. Each race is a head to head, where the loser is knocked out, culminating in a final race, where the winners receive a trophy and/or a cash prize.
As you can see from the above examples Laos’ annual calendar of festivities is rich and varied, it almost seems that there is a constant flow of parties, observances and celebrations. If you are hoping to see some of the countries’ agricultural, spiritual and cultural festivals, then below are a few specific points that you may want to consider before you go.
- If you are hoping to check out one of the rocket festivals, it is worth noting that in Vientiane, the capital, the celebrations are held in the outskirts of the city in order to minimise risks to the city’s housing and inhabitants. In fact arguably the best known and largest celebrations are actually found in the neighbouring villages, including in Natham, Pakhanhoung, Kern and Nason.
- A lesser known festival in Laos is the Elephant Festival, held in Sayaboury, which aims to highlight the problems of the country’s declining elephant population. This three day festival, held in February-March, promotes conservation and humane treatment of the noble creatures. With plenty of stalls for food and souvenirs and, of course, a chance to see the local wild elephant population, this is well worth a look in.
- Laos also celebrates many festivities that have their origins in other cultures. The celebration of Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year, in February, is a fun-filled occasion, often lasting several days. Places with larger Chinese communities see businesses closing and raucous parties, with great food and the letting off of vibrant fireworks.