Moving to Lao can take some getting used to. With all the festivals and cultural events it can sometimes seem like there is a holiday almost every week, and depending on your neighbours it might seem like there is a party every night. To help you make sense of what’s going on we have put together a list of the most important cultural events and festivals in Laos. Please note that dates for many of these festivals and events can change based on the lunar calendar or what local monks determine to be an auspicious day. To get the most up to date information ask a local friend or co-worker in the weeks leading up to the festival.
The first of January is the 1st day of the new year in the Western calendar and is a public holiday in Laos. It is also Boun Khoun Khao – a celebration of the rice harvest. This is celebrated in temples across Luang Prabang so you might not see much of it in Vientiane.
The 20th of January is celebrated as Army Day. Parades of military vehicles, marching soldiers and fireworks can be expected in most large cities. Some ministries will take this day as a public holiday, but not all.
In early February or late January (depending on the lunar calendar) there is Boun Makha Bousa – a commemoration of a speech given by Lord Buddha to 1,250 monks. This festival takes place in wats around the country but is not a large festival.
The 9th of March is International Women’s Day. If this falls on a weekend then the following Monday is a public holiday. Not all workplaces recognise this and will give women that day off but expect men to work.
Mid-April sees the most important festival of the year – Pi Mai Lao or Lao New Year. Officially the festival lasts for four days but many workplaces will be closed for the entire week. Expect large parties, loud music and water being thrown at passers-by. There are also gatherings at temples to wash holy symbols with fragrant water. If you haven’t experienced Pi Mai then can you really say you’ve lived in Lao? That being said many expats use the holiday to travel overseas and escape the madness on a beach in one of Lao’s neighbouring countries.
The 1st of May is Labour Day and is a celebration of the Labour Movement. It is recognised in Laos as a public holiday.
On the fifteenth day of the sixth lunar month, Visakhabousa festival celebrates the birth, death and tatsahou (enlightenment) of Buddha. This is not a large celebration like Pi Mai but an important event in the Buddhist calendar. Faithful Lao will visit local temples to make offerings.
Later in May, villages hold the Rocket Festival – Boun Bang Fai. This festival is a fertility festival and a reminder to the gods of their agreement to bring rains. Different villages will hold this festival on different dates so ask a local friend which is the best time to visit. Expect the typically conservative Lao to let their hair down with some sexualised floats, cross dressing, and oversized wooden dildos. Combined with large amounts of Beer Lao, bbq pork and homemade rockets, this is one of the most exciting festivals of the year. However rockets do occasionally explode on the launch pad so make sure to keep a safe distance.
June is a quite month in the Lao calendar with no major festivals. The wet season should be well and truly underway by this stage so use this month to take stock.
Early July (depending on the lunar calendar) marks the start of Buddhist Lent – Boun Khao Phansa. This is not a large festival and more directly affects monks and novices.
The 20th of July marks the anniversary of the establishment of the Women’s Union. This is celebrated as a national holiday in Laos. Unless you are attending formal celebrations with government officials this day is largely just celebrated as a day off.
Another quite month for Laos with no major festivals occurring.
Early September sees the Boat Racing Festival – Souang Heua in Luang Prabang. Boats from different villages compete on a 400m stretch of river to make their way to the grand final, usually held in the early afternoon. The day before the races there is a special market held during the day and merit making ceremonies at the temples across the city in the evening. This is a public holiday in Luang Prabang but not for the rest of the country.
Early October sees Lao celebrate the end of Buddhist lent – Boun Ok Phansa. This is held on the first full moon day of October and three lunar months after the start of Buddhist lent. In Vientiane this is followed by the Souang Heua (Boat Racing Festival) in Vientiane. This festival is usually held over three days with at least one day being a recognised public holiday. Boats race down a stretch of the Mekong, past excited crowds cheering on their favourite team. If you want to take part in the race the Mekong River Commission usually hosts a boat for expats, with training twice a week in the lead up to the race. This boat has not done well in the last few years, however there is always a party after the races, which more than makes up for the poor performance.
The 7th of October is the anniversary of the establishment of the Bank of Laos. While not a public holiday, all banks are generally closed on this day.
Towards the end of October, Luang Prabang celebrates Boun Lai Heua Fai – the Fire Boat Festival. This is one of the biggest ceremonies in Luang Prabang with a precision down the main street after dark of intricate boats shaped like nagas, adorned by candles and lanterns. These boats are gently placed into the Mekong River as an offering to the water spirits before drifting downstream. It is an incredible sight and extremely popular. Hotels often book out as locals and expats flood Luang Prabang to take part in this beautiful tradition.
On the first full moon of the twelfth lunar month (usually early November) Lao celebrates That Luang Festival. It is a celebration of Lao’s most famous and revered building, Pha That Luang, a large golden stupa said to hold the breastbone of Buddha. It is a very large festival and attracts pilgrims from all over Laos. The festival itself last 3 to seven days, one of which is a national public holiday.
December 2nd is celebrated as Lao National Day on the anniversary of the Pathet Lao forming government and renaming the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This is a national public holiday and celebrations are held throughout the country.
Mid to late December sees the celebrations of Khmu New Year (Boun Pod Pi or Boun Kreu) and Hmong New Year (Boun Kin Chiang). These two ethnic groups are some of the largest ethnic minorities in the Greater Mekong Area. They both hold their New Year celebrations in mid to late December, based on the last month of the lunar calendar. Both groups will wear their traditional clothing, perform traditional dances and play traditional games. Different groups will have different villages designated as the festival village, where the celebrations will be held. Most of these groups live in the north of Laos, so you will need to visit the north of Laos to see these festivals take place. It helps if you know a local, or get in touch with a local tour agency who will be able to organise a visit with some explanation and interpretation of the culture. Be prepared to share many glasses of Lao Lao, Lao Hai and Beer Lao with excited locals.
New Years Eve is celebrated on December 31st, with the 1st of January a public holiday. While not an especially significant holiday for Lao culture, you can expect a large party with plenty of loud music, Beer Lao, and a few fireworks.
That’s our list of the most significant cultural events and festivals in Laos. With lots of smaller ethnic minorities, each with their own beliefs and celebrations, trying to list every festival is almost impossible. We think we’ve got all the major ones, but if you think we missed something let us know.
by David Ormsby, copyright J&C Services 07/2020