Laos is the country in Southeast Asia with a reputation for sleepy tranquility. You can wile away your days by chilling out, relaxing, doing yoga, maybe reading a book; in other words, not doing very much. In many places around the country, there simply isn’t a whole lot to do. In Vientiane, the country’s western outpost, the manifestation of ‘not doing much’ is writ large. Thankfully, our visit to the city coincided with a Buddhist festival celebrating the end of Lent; Boun Awk Phansa.
WHAT IS BOUN AWK PHANSA?
Boun Awk Phansa marks the end of the Rains Retreat. This is a three month period of religious devotion in which Buddhist monks, in all their saffron-garbed finery, remain in their monasteries for reading, learning, and meditation. The festival is held in the capital in late October every year, and is attended by nearly half of the Lao population.
Suddenly, Vientiane isn’t so quiet.
Traffic becomes chaotic, Laotian music blares from cars and tuk-tuks alike, and the city turns into a party. For tourists however, it’s not a party that you might be used to seeing in Thailand or Bali. Unless you speak fluent Lao, you basically won’t have a clue what is going on. This does make for an interesting perspective.
We had just arrived in Laos with Vientiane being our first port of call. Assuming that the stories we’d heard about the city and Laos in general were true, we were expecting to see a slightly slower version of cities to which we’d already been. Imagine our surprise then, when our taxi driver is so frustrated by the increased traffic – both auto and human, he asks us to get out and walk down a dark road to our hostel, in a city we didn’t know.
GETTING TO GRIPS WITH BOUN AWK PHANSA
The festival is staged over two days in mid-to-late October. On the first day, offerings are made to monasteries around the country, and thousands of Laotians flock to their capital, Vientiane, to revel in the atmosphere. There are pop-up fairground games, and the streets are lined with vendors selling local delicacies, all manner of clothing, dvds of dubious origin, and buy-three-get-one-free offers on fish sauce. Intermingled with these stalwart vendors are groups of craftspeople, usually women, making Ka Tong lanterns to be released down the river as part of the festival.
Ka Tong lanterns are small ‘boats’ made from banana leaves and decorated with candles and flowers. Some think this procession is to thank the mother of rivers for the water they receive in the year, and others believe the boats more rudimentary purpose is to float. Away the year’s bad luck. Either way, the candles light up parts of the river and make a pretty sight.
The morning of the second day sees the beginning of the famed Vientiane Boat Race on the Mekong. Pretty much a national festival, the festivities begin at 9am and continue through the morning as the heats progress. Long dragon boats take to the water with their big name sponsors – BeerLao – and by mid-afternoon, two teams have reached the final. This is the culmination of the festival, and the point where spectators are at their most merry.
WHERE DO YOU COME IN?
We didn’t take part in the festival. We are not Buddhist, we do not speak Lao, and English is not as well spoken in Laos as in its neighbouring countries. It would have felt shallow for us, two western people, taking part in a festival we didn’t understand just to get the story. Instead, we sat back and watched the smiles and the laughter as the locals enjoyed the talent show, releasing their Ka Tong’s, and the fireworks display.
We are supremely glad that we got to experience the festival on our first night in Laos though. Yes Laos can be sleepy, and in Vientiane, you my struggle for ‘top things to do’ lists, but if you’re in town for this festival, you won’t know what’s hit you.
Talk about being thrown in the deep end.
Have you visited this festival? Did you enjoy it? Leave a reply below and let us hear your story.