Tag Archives: FESTIVALS

Loi Ka Thong – looking for peace in all the wrong places

One glimpse of the crowds at last year’s Boat Racing Festival was enough to send me straight home, where I watched the dragonboat races on TV. Later I regretted being such a coward. I vowed to step out of my comfort zone this year to experience one of Laos’ most highly-anticipated celebrations.

The holiday, which is tied to the lunar calendar, fell on a weekend this year. The boat races were scheduled for Sunday, and the Buddhist ritual of Loi Ka Thong would take place Saturday night.

I arranged to join some Lao friends for Loi Ka Thong. Websites, such as Laos Guide 999, set the stage for a tranquil, holy tradition.

Boun Awk Phansa is the last day of the Buddhist lent. It occurs in October, three lunar months after Khao Phansa on the 15th day of the 11th month of the lunar calendar. It is a day of many celebrations, most notably the boat race festival held in Vientiane.
On the first day at dawn, donations and offerings are made at temples around the country; in the evening, candlelight processions are held around the temples and it is the celebration of lai heua fai or Loi ka thong, when everyone sends small lighted ‘boats’ made of banana stems or banana leaves decorated with candles and flowers down the rivers.
These are said to pay respect to the Buddha and to thank the mother of rivers for providing water for our lives. Some believe that the lai heua fai procession is an act to pay respect to nagas that lives in the rivers, while others send the lighted boats down the river to ask for blessing and to float bad luck of the past year away enabling the good luck to flow in. Most towns with a river bank nearby will engage in this lovely ceremony. In bigger towns there are also processions of lighted boats, and the ceremony is more popular especially among young romantic couples. Villagers who live far from rivers set up model boats (made of banana stems) decorated with flowers and candlelight, while others simply light up some candles in front of their houses and do their little prayer wishing for good luck. This colorful rituals have been carried on by Lao people for thousands of years.

We were going to visit a temple, purchase a banana-leaf Ka Thong boat, join the procession to the Mekong and set sail our little boats after blessing the river and asking forgiveness for any eco-wrong-doings.

But first, we had to meet for Indian food in the heart of the festival chaos. The river road in downtown Vientiane was cut off from traffic and lined with stalls selling all sorts of wares usually purchased at a supermarket (and at the same prices). Massive speakers faced off, blaring what I can only assume were the qualities of the shampoo, toilet paper, cooking oil, or other products for sale at that particular stall. Vendors without a swanky audio system used static-y megaphones to promote the free samples, which flowed like … well, like juice, milk, whiskey, beer, soda and hand lotion. Complementing the cacophony, loudspeakers pounded out a steady bass beat with no discernable melody.

Tony and I parked where we always do, a few blocks from the action at Nam Phu Fountain, and then dove in to the melee. At this point, the river road was crowded but not unbearable. With so many storefronts blocked by the stalls, we occasionally had to pause to get our bearings. Finally we found the restaurant, Nazim, and scoffed at the option to eat outside. We eagerly plopped down at an indoor table, happy for a break from the noise (although we really couldn’t escape from the pulsing beat, which created ripples in our water glasses and reverberated through our bodies).

Soon we were joined by Lao friends Lae and Mai (and Mai’s friend, Khanha), as well as our school librarian, Jeannete, and her husband, Basim. I enjoyed the meal and the company, but I was itching to experience Loi Ka Thong.

Jeannete got a call during dinner from some cyclists riding through Laos. “We’re here!” they told her. She and Basim participate in an online organization that finds spare beds for people bicycling around the world. So they had to dash home. Tony also took off (and then came back to retrieve his keys, which he’d left on the table). Finally, the rest of the girls were ready to go.

I made the classic expat faux pas of assuming that because my friends were Lao, they certainly must know how this tradition works. Unfortunately, after wandering aimlessly for a while, I discovered that was not the case. Lae admitted she hadn’t participated in Loi Ka Thong since she was in high school. Mai said her family lived too far from the river, and they only had one bicycle, so participating in the ritual at the Mekong wasn’t feasible.

We ducked in to Wat Ong Teu, only to find we had missed the temple’s procession. Several monks were sitting behind a large table lined with metal bowls. Mai explained that you make a donation, collect a little plate of tiny coins and then drop one coin in each of the 99 bowls to ask for blessings. Cool. Of course, I was chatting the whole time I did it, so I kept losing track of where I had dropped my coins. “Is it bad karma to skip a bowl or to drop in more than one coin?” I asked. They just laughed at me.

Back on the river road, the crowd had reached maximum capacity. We slowly shuffled upstream as the Mekong River – blocked from our vision by market stalls, inflated bouncy castles, towering loudspeakers, and thousands of other pilgrims – rushed past us in the other direction. We reached one access point to the river, where a mob had bottlenecked with their Ka Thongs. The thought of joining them made my heart sink.

Lae received a call from Addie, who told us to keep walking. “It’s much less crowded up by the Mekong River Commission,” she said. And so we did. As we stumbled along, Lae shouted to me, “Now you see why I never do this!”

Eventually, we caught up with Addie, and sure enough, there was room to breathe. Addie had made her own Ka Thong (and many more, which she distributed to family members), so the rest of us purchased some from a vendor. Then we walked across a muddy stretch, descended some steep steps, scrambled down large wobbly rocks to the river’s edge and stepped on to a slippery floating dock. With my long temple-appropriate skirt tangling around my legs, camera dangling from my neck and one hand carrying my Ka Thong like a pizza, I felt quite relieved to make it that far in one piece.

The girls helped me light the candles and a sparkler on my Ga Thong, and then we each took turns offering a blessing to the river and asking forgiveness before reaching down to release our little boats. The strong current immediately swept them away, and the lights quickly blended together in the darkness.

Dripping with sweat, shaking from the treacherous climb back up to the river road, and still reeling from crowd-induced anxiety, I thanked my lovely friends for sharing their tradition with me. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I had the same experience as thousands of Lao people on this holy day, and that’s exactly what I had wanted.

It’s still early, and the crowds are thin.


Ka Thongs for sale.

At Wat Ong Teu.


Back at the river road, it’s getting pretty busy.


Finally, we meet up with Addie and enjoy a little elbow room.

Trekking down to the Mekong.

Lanterns in the sky, Ka Thongs in the water.

Mai says a little prayer before releasing her Ka Thong.

If you have a job that causes harm to the river, you must send out a bigger offering such as this.

I couldn’t hold the camera steady on the bobbing dock, but I like this shot anyway.

Boat Racing Festival Preview

Boat Racing Festival, which marks the end of Buddhist Lent, is still a week away, but the banks of the Mekong are already teeming with excitement. Carol and I took a little stroll this morning to see the dragon boat teams train on the river.

After more than five years in Asia, why did I still envision watching the action from a quiet riverside bench? Silly me. This should have been a tip-off.

There were, in fact, some people hanging out and watching the boats…

… but the biggest attractions were on land. Food vendors, carnival games, and street stalls hawking all sorts of wares competed for space along the muddy path.

One temple had converted its grounds into a kiddie park, complete with a massive inflated bouncy castle/slide and a few rides.

We wandered into another temple, where carnival chaos reigned. Even the tiniest festival-goers threw darts at balloons, fired slingshot ammunition and tennis balls at soda bottles and aimed BB guns at matchboxes. At the same time, families and monks ate lunch in the temple’s ornate worship hall. Surely there’s some deep meaning lurking in the carney atmosphere juxtaposed against the ancient temple architecture.


Shoppers on the river path had a wealth of options: mountains of clothes, bras, hair accessories, shoes, cheap plastic toys, etc. But cartoon balloons and toy guns seemed to be today’s top sellers.

These toy packages cracked me up. I love that the “Kitchen Playset” includes a hot chick in go-go boots, a stovetop cooker, four enormous sea creatures, two relatively small chairs, and various cooking implements, and the “Newfangled Series Tableware” offers up a plate of grubs with ice cream for dessert.


Feeling peckish? With so many snacking options, it may be hard to choose.
Chicken feet?

A bag of tiny speckled eggs?

Unidentified deep-fried balls?

Stinky flattened squid?

Bamboo stuffed with sweetened sticky rice?

Spicy papaya salad?

No, thank you. No, thank you. No, thank you. No, thank you.
Hmmm, OK.
Yes, please!

I can’t believe I missed out on all this last year. I was such a baby. And this is just the beginning. Can’t wait to see the REAL festival next weekend!

That Luang Festival – Wax Castle Procession

Expats often feel out of the loop during big cultural hooplas. Tony and I have taught in three international settings, and we felt equally uninformed in Istanbul, Shanghai and here in Vientiane. Even if a magazine or newspaper reports on an upcoming event, we often don’t fully understand where to go or what to do. We depend on the long-time residents and host-country nationals to give us the scoop. Fortunately, our Kiwi librarian Jeanette had done her research on the That Luang Festival (and her husband, Basim, is a writer who makes his own hours and thus has time to explore the local scene).
I knew that a procession was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, during which people would carry their “wax castles” (see yesterday’s post) from Wat Si Muang to Pha That Luang – the Golden Stupa. I had planned to be at the Si Muang temple to watch, but Jeanette made the same mistake last year and encouraged me to head out to the stupa instead. That was great advice! My friend, Whetu, and I rode our motorbikes to the stupa, which is about four kilometers from the center of town, and waited for the procession to arrive.
(Sidebar: This was my first solo excursion on the motorbike beyond my neighborhood! What a blast!)
At first, people trickled in through the gate and sat in the shade outside the stupa entrance. We started to wonder whether this event was worth our time. Suddenly, everyone stood up and started walking toward the stupa. An official-looking guy gestured for the crowd to move to the sides of the esplanade, and the procession began.
Flag-bearers led the procession, followed by a group of monks and some apparent VIPs and military leaders. Behind them, beautiful women in ethnic costumes gracefully danced forward while men played traditional percussion instruments. I didn’t get my camera ready in time to film the ladies, but here’s a short video of the musicians:

And then came the throngs of people with their offerings for the revered temple.
There must have been thousands, all carrying arrangements made from flowers, banana leaves, wax decorations and bank notes. They lined up peacefully and slowly moved toward the Golden Stupa with big smiles on their faces – chatting, chanting, cheering.

That Luang Festival

Adjusting to a new job and a new city and a new language occasionally takes its toll, and some days end in tears. That was Friday. But today is Sunday, and my culture shock schizophrenia has brought a sunny mood to match the weather and festive spirit in Vientiane this weekend.
The That Luang Festival celebrates the most important monument in Laos – Pha That Luang. Its name translates to “World-Precious Sacred Stupa,” but it’s generally known as the Golden Stupa among local expats. For the Laos people, it represents sovereignty, spirituality and national pride. The stupa was built in the era of Lan Xan, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, in the mid-16th century when King Setthathirat moved the Lao capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
Last night, we visited Wat Si Muang, where locals turned out in their finest clothes for the “wax castle procession.”
The wax castle is actually an arrangement of banana leaves and wax discs that resemble yellow flowers. People attach paper money and glittery decorations before presenting it at the temple. We saw small arrangements that easily fit in one hand, as well as massive multi-tiered displays carried on a litter by two or more men. Stalls selling the wax offerings lined the streets around the temple. Many people bought the unadorned models and added their own cash and glitz, while others created their displays from scratch, building a base from bamboo or styrofoam and mixing wax and honey to sculpt the flowers. The ubiquitous banana leaf-and-marigold arrangements sold every day near local temples were also a popular choice.

Inside the temple grounds, a xylophone band on an elevated platform provided music for the trips around the temple, and people walked with their families, village organizations or business colleagues. Here’s a little video of the xylophone guys:

After three loops around the temple, groups carried their offerings into the building and left them at the altar. Soon the temple was filled with wall-to-wall wax castles. Through the back door, we watched monks dismantling the displays and collecting the money. Here’s a little video of the procession:

The mood was light and festive with lots of singing and cheering. Occasionally, monks chanted Buddhist prayers over the loudspeaker. Children proudly carried small arrangements, candles or banners.
Suddenly, in the midst of the Buddhist celebration, a bomb went off. Well, I thought it was a bomb. It turns out Lao fireworks are even scarier than the ones in China. Some poor guy had the job of lighting a very short fuse of an explosive that was packed into a bamboo tube, and he did this over and over in various locations around the temple. I hope he survived.
Each time an explosive detonated, the crowd scattered and ducked behind trees for protection while watching the firestorm rain down on the temple. You never knew where the next bomb would be; sometimes it was right in the middle of a path. Freaky!
Finally, the fireworks ended and the crowd thinned.
Here are some photos from this spectacular experience:

Then it was time for a little Western-style revelry. Tony and I headed to an open-air pub owned by one the VIS teachers, where another teacher was performing with his 10-member funk band. I met up with some girlfriends, so Tony was free to go home, and we danced for hours under a hazy night sky.

Dance Party


We were starting to doubt if we’d make it to October, but – voila! – we did, and we’re enjoying our first week off school. This is the week of Boat Racing Festival in Laos, a holiday to mark the end of Buddhist Lent. According to the Vientiane Times,

“The annual festival serves as a reminder to farmers that the rainy season is over for another year, so they can begin harvesting and preparing their soil for the next planting season. The end of Lent allows monks to leave their temples overnight to visit relatives after three months of immersing themselves in Buddhist teachings. According to tradition, during Lent monks are not allowed to travel so they don’t accidentally step on insects or damage villagers’ rice paddy walls.”

Yesterday, I went for an early morning bike ride and saw crowds of people heading to the temples wearing their finest traditional clothing. They carried ornate silver pots, orchids, baskets of sticky rice and other offerings. After sunset on the banks of the Mekong River, villagers gathered for the traditional ritual of layheuafai. They set adrift little boats made from banana leaves with flickering candles to pay homage to the river.
As much as we would have loved to see this, Tony and I were scared off by the crazy riverside street fair. We walked through it during the daytime, and we just couldn’t imagine how it could get any more crowded or frenzied. At one point, I was meandering along when I noticed a panel covered with blown-up balloons on my right and a guy throwing darts on my left! I was walking right through the Pop-A-Balloon game! There were no signs or other warnings. Absolute chaos. One of my colleagues lost her handbag in last year’s melee when someone cut the strap, and other teachers reported stories of stolen cameras and pickpockets. So we decided to stay far, far away from the river this weekend.
Unfortunately, that means we’ll also miss the dragon boat races. Linda, a friend from school, was rowing with a village team, and I had planned to cheer her on. But alas, I got spooked by the crowds. So we watched the races on TV. Pretty amazing!
We’re sticking around Vientiane for this weeklong holiday, trying to catch up on work and taking advantage of our loaner car to get some errands done and do a little sightseeing. Today we checked out a nearby swimming pool. It’s big enough to swim laps, and it was totally empty! I was psyched until I noticed the mold all over the sides and the brackish color of the water. Still, I’m not completely deterred. I’ll wear goggles and try not to get water in my mouth. How bad could it be?