One thing we are absolutely awful about is planning our travel around festivals. If we were smarter, we would be tracking festivals in the region and making sure we saw the fun ones (can’t believe we’ve never experienced Songkran in Thailand) and avoiding the ones where everything shuts down (Tet in Hoi An was a really, really bad idea). But, as we ended up in Indonesia for Ramadan this year, we apparently aren’t that smart just quite yet….
So, you can imagine our surprise when we learned that our trip to Laos coincided with the Festival of Light.
What is the Festival of Light? I’m no expert, but I’ve read and been told that it marks the end of Vassa, which is often called Buddhist Lent. As I understand it, during the three months of Buddhist Lent, the monks are not allowed to travel, they must spend every night in the same Wat, and they are supposed to meditate more. And, the really devout locals give up meat, cigarettes, and/or alcohol for some or all of the three month period. So, as you can imagine, the Festival of Light turns into quite the party.
The purpose of the festival appears to be multi-fold: to pay homage to the Mekong River and ask forgiveness for any disrespect to or misuse of the river; to send away anything “bad” like sickness or bad luck, to provide offerings to the dead (hence, you will see boats decorated with fake money), and to ask the water spirits (nagas) to bring good luck.
In the days leading up to the Festival, the buildings are all decorated with colorful stars and the like.
Also in the days leading up to the festival, every Wat around town builds two boats out of bamboo and colored paper — one that will be on display at the Wat and one that will eventually be floated down the river. All of the villages around Luang Prabang also make a boat to float down the river. And individuals make small little boats of tree trunks, banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks, candles, and the like. And, the Wats are all lit up at night.
On the evening of the Festival, the boats (which are all numbered) line up on the main road. We arrived about 5:30 and most of the boats were already there. There were about 50 boats. Some were more impressive than others. At first, the sun was still out which allowed us to get some nice photos.
As the sun goes down, the boats come to life with lights. Much of the light is provided by candles or small lanterns, but some of the boats had LED and other electrical devices.
Eventually, the parade gets going. We aren’t sure precisely what time it started, as we didn’t want to stand around waiting so we popped into a bar for some cold beverages and french fries (what? you expected something else from us?). But, I’m guessing it started about 7:45 pm this year (we had read that other years it started around 7), as we managed to catch all but the first boat near the end of the route starting around 8 or so.
In addition to the boats, there are plenty of people marching in the parade. Some looked like school kids, but there were also lots of women in traditional tribal clothing. Most people carried some sort of light. (Well, except for the tourists who for some reason decided to join the parade, which we found incredibly odd…..).
At the end of the parade, there is apparently some sort of judging competition for the most beautiful boat. Then, the boats are put in the water and float downstream. Individuals also put their little boats in the water, so there were literally thousands of little lights on the river. It was beautiful (although next to impossible to photograph).
If you are thinking of coming to Laos in the Fall, make sure you check the date of the Festival of Light (right around the full moon), as we would really recommend this once-a-year experience.