Festival of Light (Lai Heua Fai) in Luang Prabang

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.


Small boat outside a hotel for 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.


Festival of Lights decoration in Luang Prabang.

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.


Wat decorated for Festival of Light in Luang Prabang.

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.


Boat lined up before the parade.


Boat lined up before the parade.

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.



All lit up and ready to go.

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.


Boat in the Festival of Light.  This was my favorite boat.


Boat in the Festival of Light.


Boat in the Festival of Light.

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).

P1210190If 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.

About theschneiduks

Lisa has a degree in biology and another in law and has spent the last 20 years working as a patent litigator. She is a voracious reader of young adult dystopian fiction and watches far too much bad tv. She loves pretty much anything to do with zombies, and doesn’t think there is anything weird about setting an alarm at 6 am on a weekend to stumble to a pub to watch her beloved Chelsea boys. Robert has had many professions, including a chef, a salesman, an IT guy and most recently, a stay at home dog dad. He speaks Italian and hopes to learn Spanish on this trip. He loves nothing more than a day spent sailing, hopes to do more scuba diving, and rues the day he introduced Lisa to football (i.e., soccer).
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