If you are going to travel to Laos, when you prepare your trip do not fail to find out if your trip will coincide with any of the main festivals of the country … there is a very high probability that it will, since there is almost no month of the Lao calendar in which there is no outstanding festival.
The main festivals in Laos are linked to agricultural cycles or Buddhist celebrations, and are largely focused on the local Buddhist monastery: Buddhist festivals in Laos are not just for fun, but many festivals are an occasion for Buddhist believers to generate spiritual merit, with the aim of getting a little closer to nirvana.
What is certain is that in any of these celebrations there will be abundant food, music and significant amounts of rice liquor, which together with the welcoming and carefree character so common among Laotians, has all the numbers to become a fun and unforgettable experience.
Here is a selection of the 10 events and Festivals in Laos that you should not miss (in case your trip coincides with their dates, of course!).
Boun Pi Mai – Laos New Year
The celebration of the New Year (Pi Mai) is one of the most important festivals of the year, if not the most important. New Year rites seek to revitalize the social and cosmic order. The celebration is related to the Indian festival of Holi, and water plays a key role as a symbol of purification and renewal.
Houses, streets and temples are thoroughly cleaned and beautified. On this day, the faithful make offerings of fruit and flowers in the monasteries, Buddha statues are ceremonially bathed in water, and earthen pylons are erected in the courtyard of the monasteries and on the banks of rivers, acts of offering to ask for a prosperous new year.
In contrast to the more secluded character of the celebration in homes and monasteries, a wild party breaks out in the streets. People use hoses, water pistols and buckets to throw water on each other and on vehicles on the streets, often mixed with colored dyes. No one is safe from the water, not even monks, officials or motorcyclists, and everyone accepts it with humor, since the celebration takes place at one of the hottest times of the year. In a playful way, this activity pursues the same objective: to get rid of misfortune and bring good luck for the coming year.
Take to the streets in your swimsuit and T-shirt, arm yourselves with a big water pistol and go on the attack!
WHEN: it is celebrated every year between the 14th and 16th of April, although some years it is between the 13th and 15th.
WHERE: Lao New Year is celebrated all over the country, but has a special relevance in Luang Phabang, where the ancient traditional rituals are still followed, lasting about ten days, and there are numerous processions of Buddha statues, musicians and dancers dressed in masks, representatives of the ethnic groups of Laos… and the coronation of Miss New Year!
That Luang Festival
Along with Pi Mai, Bun That Luang is the most important festival in the Lao calendar and is a Buddhist and patriotic celebration. The official festival lasts three days and takes place mainly at the large golden stupa of That Luang in the capital.
On the first two days of the celebration there are processions at dusk: on the first day to the Vat Si Müang monastery – the most important in the capital – where offerings are made, and on the second day to the great golden stupa of That Luang, where three laps are made around the stupa.
But the main and most spectacular event takes place at dawn on the third day, with a multitudinous presentation of offerings to hundreds of monks at That Luang. Thousands of people, dressed in their best traditional dress and carrying large offering bowls, make offerings to hundreds of monks who are arranged in rows.
At dusk the focus of attention shifts to the large fair that occupies the outdoor esplanade, where the deafening music of the various stalls, food stalls and fairground attractions intermingle in the popular atmosphere typical of any festival.
WHEN: coinciding with the full moon of the twelfth month of the Lao calendar (usually in November).
WHERE: in Vientiane
Boun Ork Phansa – Feast of the fire boats
Boun Ork Phansa is the celebration of the end of the monks’ 3-month retreat during the rainy season. A week before the appointed date, the courtyards of houses and monasteries begin to be decorated with colorful paper lanterns and other decorations.
At dusk, everyone heads to the river carrying small boats made of banana leaves (hüa fai, literally “fire boats”), which contain offerings in the form of incense sticks, candles and small amounts of money, and are released into the water to be carried away by the current.
In Luang Phabang there is a procession of large boats in the shape of a naga snake, covered with lighted candles and made of colored paper on a bamboo structure. The large illuminated naga advance along the main street to the main monastery of the city, the Vat Siang Thong, and descend the steps of the old royal pier to the waters of the Mekong River, where the boats are released creating a beautiful spectacle.
WHEN: coinciding with the full moon of the eleventh month of the Lao calendar (usually in October).
WHERE: it is celebrated all over the country, but Luang Prabang is the best place to see it.
Boun Bang Fai – Rocket Festival
Boun Bang Fai is one of the most unique festivals in Laos. Also known as Rocket Festival, Laotians hold this festival at aim of calling for rain and favorable weather condition.
The most impressive and characterized activity of Rocket Festival is launching self-made firework rockets. These rockets are made by stuffing gunpowder inside a nicely decorated bamboo. Rocket bamboos have various sizes from small to very large. On the first festive day, after sacred ceremonies, bamboo rockets are carried to the communal launch-pad for joining an interesting contest. Firstly, villagers joining in the contest will be divided into teams basing on the size and shape of rockets. Scores are given based on 3 criteria: highest flyer, beautiful decoration, entertaining performance.
Before launching the rocket, men in women’s clothes and elaborate mask dancing and singing around the rocket to call for rain and pray for this message successfully sent to the God. Rockets are launching in the applause and joyfulness of the crowd. If any team cannot make rocket explode and fly, the leader of that team will be punished by drinking muddy water or Satho (rice whisky). During the festival, there are a variety of traditional food are prepared to serve guests.
Rocket Festival is a unique traditional religious festival of Laotians reflecting their distinguished concept of nature and instinctive way of thinking. With interesting rocket launching activity, Boun Bang Fai deserves to be a cultural highlight of Laos.
WHEN: often celebrated in the sixth month of lunar calendar (before the rainy season).
WHERE: around some villages of Nason, Natham, Thongmang, Kern, Pakhanhoung in the suburban of Vientiane capital.
Boat Racing Festival
The Festival of Boat Races – Boun Suang Heua – is a celebration of animist origin that was originally held in honor of the Naga, the aquatic deities in the shape of a huge snake. The main cities on the banks of the great Mekong River and its main tributaries are the scene of these races, and days before the competition, full teams can already be seen training for the occasion.
The boats are long and narrow, with sharp ends and carved from a single large trunk, and are propelled by groups of between thirty and more than fifty men, all equipped with a short oar, rhythmically moving to the beat of a drum and counting in a loud voice. Teams may compete on behalf of a village, a government department, or be sponsored by a commercial brand.
On the day of the competition, a crowd of spectators gathers on the shore to cheer on their teams in an evening of drinking and live music as the teams compete in pairs in heats leading up to the grand final.
WHEN and WHERE: boat races take place in different places and times of the year, such as around the full moon of the eleventh month of the Lao calendar (usually in October) in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannakhet, Champasak and other cities on the banks of the Mekong, and sometimes also on the occasion of National Day (December 2) in Vientiane.
Noj Peb Caug – The Hmong New Year
The Hmong New Year (Noj Peb Caug) celebrates the completion of the rice harvest and the cycle of agricultural life, which ends and begins again. During the three days of the festival, work is completely forbidden. On a strictly family level, offerings are presented to the protective spirits of the household, ancestors are venerated and a ceremony is held to invoke the souls of the family who may have wandered astray to return home.
The most popular Hmong New Year’s game is pov pob, an ancient courtship ritual in which two lines are formed, one of boys and one of girls, placed facing each other and a few meters apart. Each girl brings a black cloth ball, stands in front of the boy of her choice and tosses him the ball, which they begin to pass repeatedly. If there is insufficient interest on the part of both, a change of partners will naturally occur.
The game is an excellent opportunity for young people to find a partner, which is why married women are not allowed to play (but married men are!).
WHEN: usually coincides with our month of December.
WHERE: in all Hmong villages (northern Laos).
Akha Swing Festival
The Swing Festival is the most important in the Akha ethnic calendar. At the beginning of the festival, a swing made up of four poles joined at the upper end, from which hangs a long rope, is built. The village chief is responsible for the safety of the high swing, and therefore he is the first to climb and swing, after making small offerings to the spirits of the earth. From that moment until night falls after two days, all those who wish may swing during daylight hours.
During the first hour the young boys of the village usually swing, holding on to the rope, with one foot resting on a loop at the lower end of the rope and using the other foot to propel themselves, in a spectacular and risky competition that seeks to attract the attention of the girls. But it is mainly the women, of all ages and wearing their spectacular traditional clothes, who use the swing most of the time, sitting on a board securely attached to the lower loop of the rope.
At dusk on the fourth day, the festival is brought to an end by unhooking the rope from the swing. The large bamboo structure will remain in place unused until a year later when it is replaced by a new one.
WHEN: held for four days in late August or early September.
WHERE: in Akha villages, located in the extreme north and northwest of Laos (Phongsali, Luang Namtha and Bokèo provinces.
Wat Phou Festival
Wat Phou Festival is held every year at the site of the ancient Khmer temple of the same name and UNESCO World Heritage Site, near the town of Champasak in the far south of Laos. This is the largest festival in the south of the country, and there are plenty of curious activities, including elephant races, buffalo and cock fights, and traditional music and dance performances, as well as a fair where products from different parts of southern Laos, as well as the nearest provinces of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, are displayed and sold.
WHEN: during the full moon of the third month of the Lao calendar (usually in February).
WHERE: Wat Phu compound, Champasak (southernmost tip of Laos)
Sikhottabong Stupa Festival
This is a local festival that is not very different from others, but for me it has a special charm because it has an authentic local atmosphere, as the town of Thakhaek receives very few tourists. As with most festivals in Laos, offerings and other Buddhist religious events play a prominent role, but what you should not miss is the big fair with stores, rides, food stalls, dancing and live music.
WHEN: during the full moon of the third month of the Lao calendar (usually in February).
WHERE: around the Sikhottabong stupa, in the village of Thakhaek, Khampouane Province, south-central Laos.
Lao National Day
Lao National Day is celebrated every December 2 in commemoration of the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. It’s not a very flashy celebration, but if it catches you in Vientiane it’s worth going to see the parades, people waving Lao flags and communist flags with the hammer and sickle, or if you’re lucky even traditional rowing boat races on the Mekong River.
WHEN: December 2
WHERE: all over the country, but mainly in Vientiane.
But in Laos, in addition to these celebrations, there are many others: some at the state level, others at the regional level, and many others are specific to each ethnic group in the country … and in Laos there are about 50! Therefore, even if your stay does not coincide with any of the 10 festivals in Laos that we have recommended, we advise you to ask the locals, who are usually so welcoming and party-loving that do not be surprised if, without knowing you at all, they suggest you to go together to the festival of the day.
Enjoy the party and watch out for the rice liquor (lao lao), which is very strong!