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Festivals

“Boun Phra Veth” – Buddhist festival

The festival is held to celebrate the generosity made by the Lord Buddha in one of his reincarnations. To Buddhist Laotians, going to temple to make merit during the period is a traditional practice made since their forefathers’ time.

The chanting of Buddhist monks in the festival is of unique rhythm, which is interesting and amazing.

Preparations for the festival involve not only individuals but the whole village. The Boun Phra Veth is thus a collective undertaking. Preceded by preparations and a “nganh” (entertaining & warming activities) the day before, the festival takes a whole day, devoted to the reading by monks of the life of the Buddha in his last reincarnation. This refers to the Jataka called Vessantara.

During his last reincarnation, Phra Vet or Vessantara, distributed all his possessions as alms, sacrificing his white elephant, forsook his children and his wife.

 

Celebrations of the Lao new year “Pimai” - April

The Lao New Year festival takes place in mid-April and lasts three days.

The first day of the festival is marked with the street market held in the town centre in the morning, where local people will do some shopping for some items necessary for the traditional rites.

Such morning street market is held twice a year in Luang Prabang: one at Pimai in April and the other at the annual pirogue festival in August.

One of the necessary things bought at the market in the morning are live animals, either birds, fish, or turtle. They will be set free after being fed. The act of giving freedom and life is believed to bring about merits to those who perform it. Another item is the colourful vertical banner for the decoration of sand stupa to be built on the island across the Mekong River in the afternoon. The banners feature the mythical animals of the Lao zodiac.

In the afternoon, residents will cross the Mekong River to Done Sai Moungkhoun (Moungkhoun island) to build sand stupa. It is believed that each grain of sand delivers the devotees from a sin.

On the sand bank, a “Baci” blessing ceremony is performed for guests attending the event, including senior officials of the province or country’s leaders, and traditional sports games are held.

Hair washing is, by tradition, a common practice on the day, normally at around five o’clock in the afternoon. Those living by the riverside will go down the river bank to do the washing with an aim to let bad things go along the old year.

The first day of the festival marks the last day of the old year, which every family has to do the cleaning of their house.

The next day is called Mue Nao, which belongs neither to the outgoing year nor to the new year. Working is forbidden on the day.

In the afternoon comes “Hae Vor” - the Procession of the Palanquins, which is now more commonly called “Hae Nang Sangkhane” (Procession of the Goddess of the Year). This procession derives from an ancient legend of Phagna Kabillaphom. The procession starts from Vat That in the south of town to Vat Xiengthong on the other end.

On New Year’s day, early in the morning local residents in their traditional costume, holding silver bowls and bamboo-woven rice boxes, perform “Saybard” - the offering of food, mostly rice, to monks. Hundreds of monks and novices in saffron robes from all the temples of the city walk in a single file along the streets and devotees place offerings, including glutinous rice and sweets, in their alms bowls. After the “Saybard”, lay people climb up “Phousi”, the sacred hill in front of the former Royal Palace. They place small rice balls along the staircases and pray at the stupa on top of the hill, which is the foundation stone of the town of Luang Prabang.

Baci ceremonies are organised at most homes to wish members of the family and friends good health, happiness and prosperity. Young people perform the “Kharava-Somma” rite, which is to ask the elder members of the family to forgive them for their wrong doings in the past year. “Larb” - the national dish, whose meaning is luck, is prepared with a belief to bring good luck to members of the family.

In the afternoon, the procession goes back from Vat Xiengthong to Vat Maha That or Vat That Noi.

The identity of the Pimai festival is the splashing of water to each other to wish good luck for the new year. Water splashing is prevailing everywhere around town. To foreigners, the festival is dubbed a “water-splashing” war.

The celebration is at its peak in Luang Prabang with processions of the legendary royal guardian, mythical float of Nang Sangkhane, long line of girls in traditional costume and band of traditional musicians. Traditionally, Boun Pimai served to reaffirm Lao monarchy.

It's also a purification festival during which Buddha images in households and temples are ritually cleansed with scented water.

The Phra Bang Buddha image is moved out of the national museum in a solemn procession after the festival for the public water cleansing ceremony in the ground of Vat May.fstv1
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The procession to take the “Phra Bang” Buddha image from Vat May back to the former Royal Palace – now the national museum, following the public water cleansing ceremony. (photos taken in April 2011).
 

Pirogue & “Hor Khao Padabdin” Festival - August

One day ahead of the festival, an annual street market is held in the town centre, where local residents do the shopping for necessary items for the “Khao Padabdin” festival.

The annual local boat racing is held to mark the “Hor Khao Padabdin” festival, which falls on the 14th waning day of the ninth lunar month. In the morning, local people will go to temple to make merit in dedication to their deceased ancestors.

Following the merit making ceremony, another remarkable ceremony is held at temples, where rowers and seniors of the village will pay homage to the guardian of their village pirogue. They will make a three–round circle of the sim amid the sprinkle of holy water and monks’ chanting to bless them good luck in their boat racing.

The long-boat racing competition takes place on the Khane River in the afternoon.

The annual pirogue festival in Luang Prabang takes place in August, earlier than others in the rest of the country. The boat racing festival is normally held in October in the rest of the country to mark the End of the three-month Buddhist Lent.
 

“Ork Phansa” End of Buddhist Lent – October

“Ork Phansa” is the end of the Buddhist Lent, the three-month period over the rainy season when monks are confined to temples and prohibited from staying anywhere else.

On the day of “Ork Phansa” - the full moon day of the eleventh lunar month, villagers line the streets at dawn to give alms to monks walking in a single file on major roads of town.

After the morning “saybard” activity along the road, some would further go to temple to pray and perform other religious activities.

On the following night comes "Lay Heuafay", which brightly lit "boats" would be put in a procession. The decorated floats all assemble at Vat That temple and process down the main street in a lively and brightly lit parade. Many people dress up and walk with their village's float, which makes its way to Vat Xiengthong.

Here, in the historic old town of Luang Prabang, in the town's most admired temple, the floats are judged by their beauty and creativity, winning cash or modest prizes to support the village and temple that created it. After the winners have been announced, the floats proceed once more down the steep steps from Vat Xiengthong to the Mekong where they are launched, still brightly blazing, into the river.

This is also the spot where individuals come throughout the night to launch their small “kathongs” floats into the river.