how to celebrate the Festival of Light in Luang Prabang, Laos

CANDLES BEING LIT AT DUSK

CANDLES BEING LIT AT DUSK

Every October, the little UNESCO town of Luang Prabang lights up for the festival of light, Lai Heua Fai, in celebration of Boun Awk Phansa, the end of Buddhist Lent. The city becomes impossibly beautiful, illuminated by wax candles melting to pagodas and crepe paper lanterns hanging from temple roofs and the windows of local homes.

For many visitors, there is a lot that doesn’t quite get translated. Why is there a parade of dragons things? What are those things with the flowers on them? Why are all the monks and novices bald? I’m here to to answer all those questions and give the full scoop on my absolute favourite festival I’ve been to in Southeast Asia!


READ ON FOR information about THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHT


MONK OBEE AT THE MAIN STREET PARADE GETTING PHOTOS OF THE NAGA FLOATS

MONK OBEE AT THE MAIN STREET PARADE GETTING PHOTOS OF THE NAGA FLOATS

WHAT IS BOUN AWK PHANSA

Buddhism varies widely from place to place, as do the stories people retell. People visiting from Thailand, China, and other countries in Southeast Asia are often shocked at how protected and well-preserved Laotian Theravada Buddhism remains. Boun Awk Phansa in Laos, particularly in Luang Prabang, is celebrated with rituals that have been carried out by locals for thousands of years, including making krathongs and floating them done the Mekong, giving morning alms and offerings to local temples in the morning, and the parade of nagas.

Boun Awk Phansa marks the three lunar months of Buddhist Lent. it begins on the full moon in July and ends on the full moon in October. In observation of Buddhist Lent, strict rules are enforced in Laos.

The story goes that during Buddha’s pilgrimage, when he had thousands of followers, he recognized that wherever they went they ruined any of the crops they had walked on. So to give the crops a chance to grow back, Buddha declared that his followers were not allowed to leave their temple during Boun Awk Phansa.

Nowadays, Buddhist Lent is a bit more modern. Still, during this three-month period, Monks and Novice are not allowed to stay away from their temple overnight and can’t disrobe during this period.

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WHAT IS Lai Heua Fai

Lai Huea Fai {also referred to as The Candle Light Festival or The Festival of Lights} is the festival that takes place at Boun Awk Phansa. Like other Laotian festivals, it blends together Animist and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that the ceremony originated as a way to pay homage to the river deities and their spirits. However, now small 'boats of light' are floated down the river to signify the letting go of any immoral thoughts and actions, such as greed and anger, over the past year. These small boats known, as 'Krathongs', are made from a banana tree trunk, acting as a base, and decorated with various flowers and candles. At the water's edge, wishes are murmured before they are let go to float down the river.

THE KRATHONG I MADE WITH THE LUANG PRABANG LIBRARY

THE KRATHONG I MADE WITH THE LUANG PRABANG LIBRARY

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KRATHONGS

WHAT IS A KRATHONG

A krathong is traditionally a piece of banana trunk, wrapped decoartively in flowers and banana leaves and topped with a wax candle and incense, that you release into a body of water.

INSIDER TIP: It’s believed that if you and your lover float your krathongs down the river and they float together, you will return to one another in the next life! Many couples “cheat the system” and pin their krathongs together so as to not risk it.

WHERE TO BUY A KRATHONG

You can buy krathongs at street stalls around town— there are so many of them you literally could not miss them even if you tried. Small krathongs sell for 5,00-10,000 kip {USD $0.58- $1.17}, while the large ones can sell for upwards of 80,000 kip {USD $9.36}.

WHERE TO MAKE A KRATHONG

Alternatively, you can make your own krathong at the Luang Prabang Library. The Luang Prabang Library staff supply fresh marigolds, incense, candles, banana leaves, scissors, toothpicks, and sliced banana trunk. The krathongs are free for you to learn how to craft for yourself, but there is a donation box. The Luang Prabang Library do so many things for the community and for surrounding rural villages, I highly recommend making a small donation to help cover the cost of supplies.

WHERE TO RELEASE YOUR KRATHONG

You can pay to take a Mekong River Cruise and float your krathong from the boat, however, boats book up fast. This is also the more pricey option. I was lucky enough to do this in 2016 and it was a truly beautiful way to celebrate the festival. However, for no money at all, you can release your krathongs from multiple river entry points by braving the steep staircases around the peninsula. Walk down the steps, meditate on your krathong, and send it off into the water with well wishes and happy thoughts.

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WHERE TO SEE THE LIGHTS

You’ll see lanterns and lights all around town, but there are a few specific places where the lights of the festival are extra spectacular.

Temples are open to the public and even the few of them that usually cost money to enter {like Wat Xien Thong} are free so that visitors can come and look at the lights and lanterns. Some of my favourite lesser-known temples include: Wat Siphoutbat, Wat Aphay, Wat Visounnarath, Wat Aham, and Wat Manorom.

CODE OF CONDUCT: YOU SHOULD BE DRESSED APPROPRIATELY! Foreigners come to visit Luang Prabang, wanting photos of the beautiful temples and they walk right in without regard for covering their shoulders or knees. Your Instagram grid and comfort does not trump cultural preservation. It’s hot, it’s crowded, and it might not be super cute— regardless, it’s culture. And part of the privilege of traveling around the world is embracing what, at times, might not be comfortable.

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RELEASING LANTERNS

Releasing lanterns isn’t inherently a part of the tradition of the festival in Laos, which is nice given the negative environmental impact of the “floating lanterns”. While there is no doubt the lanterns are a truly gorgeous sight to take in, it’s also nice for the focus to be on the krathongs lighting up the rivers, the Nagas lighting up the streets, and the handmade lanterns lighting up the temples.

candlelight festival in luang prabang
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awk phansa

overall opinion

My overall recommendation is that those who visit in Laos book their tickets for October. It’s as if magic is saved up and all of it is released at the end of Boun Awk Phansa. Hotels, hostels, and guesthouses usually book up quite a bit in advance, so if you’re picky about where you’d like to stay, it’s best to book in advance. However, if you’ll hunker down at any guesthouse that’s reasonably clean, you should be fine to saunter around town and find accommodation on the spot.

 

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