In a city filled with travelers on the evening of one of the biggest festivals in Laos, it seemed odd that we were among the few travelers actually IN the parade.
As the fire and music swept us down the streets of Luang Prabang I worried briefly that we were on the receiving end of some mischievous joke. Or worse, what if our involvement was somehow offensive? After all, the local significance of Laos’ Lai Heua Fai – the Festival of Lights that marks the end of “Buddhist Lent” – runs deeper than the lighthearted festivities let on.
But then one of the makers of dragon boat #25 grinned and handed me a cold Beerlao from the cooler on the back of the platform, where the driver steered a single wheel with a long wooden pole. The men who had invited us to join their small but spirited crew seemed genuinely happy to see us.
The insistent, sonorous gong propelled us together down the crowded street in a river of light and fire and chanting. Swept up in the moment, I made a decision: I’m just going to go with this.
The electric energy heightened as we slowed to a stop where the parade met the river’s edge. Each village waited in a crescendo of singing and drumming for their turn to launch their precious work of art onto the Mekong River. My friends and I thought this might be the end of the line for us, but the makers of dragon boat #25 motioned for us to grab hold as they began hefting the boat off its rickety wooden cart.
I lifted too and felt the weight in my arms, tippy and awkward. Now it was time to work for the privilege of joining the parade! Fortunately the team had clearly done this before, and we struggled to keep up with them as we shuffled into a controlled area where spectators were turned away and only boat carriers were allowed.
We side-stepped gingerly into two narrow canoe-like boats pointing out into the river, holding the elaborately decorated bamboo and paper boat between us. I did my best to not fall into the Mekong, wondering if maybe this was finally the punchline of the joke.
But the teamwork was impeccable, and soon the boat was resting in the water between our two rows of people. And then it was off, floating away to join the river of light and wishes released into the Mekong by the people of Luang Prabang.
Doing our best to honor the moment for our new friends, we offered celebratory smiles and high-fives. They invited us to a celebration which, due to an unfortunate glitch of language or navigation or both, we never managed to find. Instead we wandered the relaxed streets of Luang Prabang as families laughed over street-side feasts and locals released their small banana boats into the Mekong.
Meeting the Boat Makers
I’ll never know for sure why the makers of dragon boat #25 invited us to walk with them in the Boun Lai Heua Fai parade, but I’m pretty sure credit goes to my extroverted travel companions. For my own part I had been on a rather introverted journey, traveling solo by bicycle on the wrong side of a massive language barrier through much of Southeast Asia.
I unknowingly pedaled onto the Laos backpacker trail at just the right time, happy to speak English and get to know a few fellow travelers. They were headed to Luang Prabang for a festival I hadn’t heard of. Craving company and conversation I changed my route plans, met them at a budget hostel on the water’s edge, and parked my bicycle for a few days.
We spent the afternoons wandering around temples and eating, which seem to be the two main events in the days leading up to Boun Lai Heua Fai. The atmosphere was half religious ceremony, half carnival: gilded temples, carnival games and bouncy castles, chanting monks, ball games and stalls selling grilled skewers and beer.
After dark the temples transformed into magical arrays of lanterns, each with a real candle flickering inside, lit by young monks and novices strolling quietly in saffron robes.
While admiring a work-in-progress dragon boat at one of the temples the day before the parade, my backpacker friend struck up a conversation with the build crew. They told us about their design, pointed out parts they were proud of, and talked about how long it had taken to build.
“Our village is small,” they told us, explaining that each village builds their own boat and brings people to march in the parade alongside it. “We don’t have enough people. Come walk with us tonight.”
I’ll never know how many other visitors they said this to, but I do know that when dragon boat #25 passed in the parade later that night, we were the only ones who took them at their word and jumped in. I’ll always be thankful to them for welcoming us into their world for a special evening.
How to Celebrate the Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang
While I can’t promise you’ll be invited to join the parade, I absolutely do recommend visiting Luang Prabang for the Festival of Lights. The view from the sidelines is amazing too. And if you’re the type to strike up conversations, there’s a good chance you’ll meet some locals who are happy to let you into their world for a little while. Here’s what you need to know.
Boun Lai Heua Fai usually happens each year in October at the end of the “Buddhist Lent” period, more accurately known as Khao Phansa. Check the Luang Prabang Tourism website for the exact date.
The holiday marks the end of a three month period of monastic seclusion during which novices and monks remain in their temples and only leave during the day, if at all. Lay Buddhists often give up something during the period, such as alcohol or meat, and spend more time giving alms to monks, meditating, and learning about Buddhist teachings.
The end of this three month period is celebrated with joy, gratitude, and wishes for good luck. People launch small banana leaf boats into the river, visit temples, watch the parade, and share a celebratory meal with friends and family.
Visiting Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang, in central Laos at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, was the royal capital of Laos until 1975. Its intriguing blend of Laotian Buddhist culture with French European influence has earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though it’s a popular tourist destination and you’ll see plenty of foreigners in town, the atmosphere is laid back and the city feels surprisingly small. There’s accommodation for every budget range, and no shortage of delicious Lao food. It’s easy and pleasant to get around on foot or on the ubiquitous rental bicycles. Popular things to do in Luang Prabang include:
- Visiting the dozens of elaborately decorated wats (temples)
- Shopping at the night market
- Climbing Phou Si Hill to see the temples and view the city
- Trips to nearby waterfalls and caves
Exploring Wats and Lantern Displays
Admiring a few of Luang Prabang’s famous wats is on every visitor’s must-do list, but during the end of Khao Phansa the experience is even more special. In the day or two before the parade, the temple compounds are decorated with elaborate displays of paper lanterns.
As there are dozens of temples (the Lao word “wat”) in Luang Prabang, you can spend an entire evening just wandering from wat to wat and strolling peacefully amidst the lights. It’s a great time for nurturing a sense of reflection and appreciation, even for those who aren’t Buddhist.
The rules in Luang Prabang are more lax than other places and we saw some of everything, but I think it’s respectful to still observe proper temple dress code: shoulders and knees covered, and remove hats and shoes if entering the actual temple building.
Also, avoid pointing your feet at the Buddha, don’t eat or drink, and don’t stick cameras in the faces of monks without permission. We saw plenty of friendly monks talking with visitors of all genders, but women are not supposed to touch monks or their robes. Finally and obviously, try to maintain a quiet and respectful mood in these beautiful places of worship.
Watching the Boun Lai Heua Fai Parade
The parade starts after dark on Sisavangvong Road on the northwest side of Phousi hill – just look for the crowds of people gathered – and heads northeast up to the banks of the Mekong. People typically gather in the afternoon to walk the blocked-off streets and enjoy street food and markets, then settle in for a good seat as the sun starts to set and the lights and fire can be properly appreciated. There are some steep grassy embankments on the south side of the road that are perfect for a great view.
As the large village boats are released into the river, people release their own small banana leaf boats, called krathongs. You can buy these everywhere in the streets of Luang Prabang, or even make your own. Traditionally they are released into the Mekong after a moment of reflection, and with feelings of appreciation for the nature / water spirit and wishes for good luck in the coming year.
A Highlight of Travel in Laos
If you have the opportunity to time your visit to Laos with Lai Heua Fai, I highly recommend it. I’m sure Luang Prabang is a lovely town any time of year, but during the festival weekend it was buzzing with a wonderful energy.
As a tourist I was surprised by the easygoing and welcoming atmosphere. Most visitors were respectful, and in return locals welcomed us into their temples, celebratory meals, and even the parade itself, generously teaching us about their traditions. The blend of joyfulness, beauty and sincerity was unlike any other holiday I’ve experienced around the world, and is one of my fondest memories from the lovely country of Laos.
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