Every year around October, we celebrate Boun Ork Phansa. The festival, which marks the end of Ork Phansa, or Budhhist lent, culminates with Boun Lai Heua Fai, also known as the Festival of Lights.
As October rolls in, monks & novices are busy making lanterns to decorate the temples. Villages are finishing up their “fire boats” with hopes of winning the annual competition. And Luang Prabang is bustling with all kinds of activities. Wondering what a “fire boat” is? It’s simply a sort of boat made out of bamboo and colorful tissue paper. It’s filled with hundreds of candles which when lit at night give it a magical glow.
This year, since it was the first substantial celebration since 2019, the town went big! The Luang Prabang Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with SUS Tour, organized a 7 day festival, the Sabaidee Luang Prabang Fest (from October 6th to 12th) to celebrate. This festival aimed to promote sustainable tourism and support local businesses following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The winner of the Traditional Clothing Contest was announced that evening… Congratulations again to Pookie Phueakma!
The festival kicked off with a traditional lantern competition held in the beautiful Wat Mai temple, where novices and monks from all temples of Luang Prabang gathered and proudly presented their lantern to the jury.
The following days the people of Luang Prabang and visitors (yeah, tourists are coming back!!) could stroll around the handicraft market at Heuan Chan Heritage, walk around the peninsula in traditional (rented) clothing and even attend a fashion show hosted by us at our Living Crafts Center. The winner of the Traditional Clothing Contest was announced that evening. Congratulations again to Pookie Phueakma!
Boun Ork Phansa started bright and early as the traditional alms giving at dawn also takes a new dimension at the end of buddhist lent. It was impressive to see the number of people who woke up early and gathered along the main street, from the end of the peninsula all the way to the Royal Palace.
The offerings – sticky rice, khao tom (sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves), candies and some money – quickly filled up the alms bowl of the novices and monks. So much so that baskets were placed along the main street for the novices and monks to put the overflow to be distributed to temples in villages outside of town.
A big part of the celebrations is releasing khatongs in the river. This symbolizes letting go of bad energy and bringing good luck into your life. It’s also a way to pay homage to the Naga and other sacred spirits that live in the Mekong. A khatong is made out of a banana stem, banana leaves, lots of colorful flowers and finished off with candles and incense.
During this time you’ll see families making khatongs on street corners ready for you to buy or if you want to be more involved, you can join a workshop to create your own. Ock Pop Tok organizes one every year where our guides help you make your very own khatong. Khatongs are usually released on the day of Boun Lai Heua Fai. You can see them floating down the Mekong forming a procession of lights and flowers for the “fire boats”.
These same “fire boats” were paraded down the main street in a festive mood until Wat Xieng Thong. All lit, the “fire boats” – a true labor of love – escorted by their makers down the main street are beautiful. There’s singing and dancing. There’s laughter and awe.
Once at the end of the peninsula, the “fire boats” are taken down the stairs of Wat Xieng Thong one after the other. And one by one, they’re released into the Mekong river in front of amazed spectators. The night ended with a bang, with fireworks over the Mekong.
It’s truly a unique sight to witness, a unique experience to live. It happens only once a year, so make sure you book your trip accordingly if you want to experience the magic of Boun Lai Heua Fai! See you next year?!