Every October, the little UNESCO town of Luang Prabang lights up for the festival of light, Boun Lai Heua Fai, in celebration of Boun Awk Phansa, the end of Buddhist Lent. The city becomes impossibly beautiful, illuminated by wax candles melting to pagodas and crepe paper lanterns hanging from temple roofs and the windows of local homes.

For many visitors, there is a lot that doesn’t quite get translated. Why is there a parade of dragons things? What are those things with the flowers on them? Why are all the monks and novices bald? Read on, you will find all the answers below.

What is Boun Awk Phansa?

First of all, we will learn a little about Boun Awk Phansa, the reason for the Festival of light in Luang Prabang

Buddhism varies widely from place to place, as do the stories people retell. People visiting from Thailand, China, and other countries in Southeast Asia are often shocked at how protected and well-preserved Laotian Theravada Buddhism remains. Boun Awk Phansa in Laos, particularly in Luang Prabang, is celebrated with rituals that have been carried out by locals for thousands of years, including making krathongs and floating them done the Mekong, giving morning alms and offerings to local temples in the morning, and the parade of nagas. 

Boun Awk Phansa marks the three lunar months of Buddhist Lent. it begins on the full moon in July and ends on the full moon in October. In observation of Buddhist Lent, strict rules are enforced in Laos. 

The story goes that during Buddha’s pilgrimage, when he had thousands of followers, he recognized that wherever they went they ruined any of the crops they had walked on. So to give the crops a chance to grow back, Buddha declared that his followers were not allowed to leave their temple during Boun Awk Phansa.

Nowadays, Buddhist Lent is a bit more modern. Still, during this three-month period, Monks and Novice are not allowed to stay away from their temple overnight and can’t disrobe during this period.

Here is all you need to know about Boun Awk Phansa

What is Boun Lai Heua Fai – Luang Prabang Festival of Light?

Lai Heua Fai (also referred to as The Candle-Light Festival or The Festival of Lights) is the festival that takes place at Boun Awk Phansa. Like other Laotian festivals, it blends together Animist and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that the ceremony originated as a way to pay homage to the river deities and their spirits. However, now small 'boats of light' are floated down the river to signify the letting go of any immoral thoughts and actions, such as greed and anger, over the past year. These small boats known, as 'Krathongs', are made from a banana tree trunk, acting as a base, and decorated with various flowers and candles. At the water's edge, wishes are murmured before they are let go to float down the river.

The festival is more or less similar to Loy Krathong Festival in Thailand

When is the festival of light in Luang Prabang?

Lao people celebrate the festival basing on their own lunar calendar; hence the date of Boun Lai Heua Fai changes every year, but it is usually in the first 2 weeks of October each year.

Just remember, Boun Lai Heua Fai will be organized 1 day after Boun Awk Phansa 

Below is the date until 2024 for your reference:

Year Date Day
2020 2 Oct Thu
2021 21 Oct Wed
2022 11 Oct Mon
2023 29 Oct Sat
2024 18 Oct Thu

 

What to expect during Luang Prabang festival of light?

Boun Lai Heua Fai is a truly unifying festival, this celebration brings together all levels of people from all social classes, the poorest of farmers, the richest of landowners, young, old, laypeople and monks.

Lanterns for the Festival of Lights Are Created and Displayed

Individuals and families make lanterns, usually of bamboo and coloured paper, they use them to decorate their houses, their gardens, streets and temples.    These look pretty during the day, but when candles or lamps are placed inside them at night they are stunning.

The Fire Boats of the Festival of Lights Are Built

Each village builds a Fire Boat and each temple builds two ‘Fire Boats”.    These seriously elaborate and beautiful Fire Boats are made of bamboo and coloured paper.  They’re huge.  You have to see them to believe their size.

The Temples build two Fire Boats – one called the Heau Fai which is floated down the river as part of the festival and the other, the Heua Fai Khowk, which remains in the temple grounds.

The Fire Boats are judged by a jury before they take part in the Fire Boat parade.

Bamboo and coloured paper are used as the Fire Boats are lit from within at night creating an enchanting almost magical appearance.

The Fire Boat Parade in the Festival of Lights

On the night of the full moon, the height of the festival, a parade commences after dark, the end destination of the Fire Boat Parade is the Mekong River.  The Fire Boats, illuminated by candles, filled with offerings are released to sail on the river.

The Fire Boat Parade Ends on the Mekong River

Fire Boats and other offerings (you can read on about how to make your own offering) are released onto the river for a number of reasons.

Firstly its homage to the river – especially the Mekong which literally stands for “mother of all things” – it’s a way of asking the river and all those divinities that inhabit it for forgiveness for disrespecting it and misusing its water. (which seem somewhat stranger, as this is occurring by putting MORE stuff in it…)

Secondly, the releasing of offerings and Fire Boats into the Mekong is a way to send away negativity – like sickness, bad luck and failures. The festival is also aimed at sending offerings to the dead and paying homage to the Lord Buddha.  There is also a hope that the nagas (the water spirits) will bring good luck to the residents making offerings.

Where to see the light?

You will see lanterns and lights all around town, but there are a few specific places where the lights of the festival are extra spectacular. 

Temples are open to the public and even the few of them that usually cost money to enter (like Wat Xieng Thong) are free so that visitors can come and look at the lights and lanterns. Some of my favourite lesser-known temples include: Wat Siphoutbat, Wat Aphay, Wat Visounnarath, Wat Aham, and Wat Manorom. 

CODE OF CONDUCT: YOU SHOULD BE DRESSED APPROPRIATELY! Foreigners come to visit Luang Prabang, wanting photos of the beautiful temples and they walk right in without regard for covering their shoulders or knees. Your Instagram grid and comfort does not trump cultural preservation. It’s hot, it’s crowded, and it might not be super cute— regardless, it’s culture. And part of the privilege of traveling around the world is embracing what, at times, might not be comfortable. 

All You Need to Know About the Fire Boat Parade

What time is the Fire Boat Parade?

While you’ll see many references to a time that the parade starts – 1730, 1800 and so on.  It’s all really rather fluid.  The Fire Boats will start lining up at around 1730 and the parade is supposed to start around 1800.  It rarely starts before 1900.

Where is the best place to watch the Fire Boat Parade?

There is a fabulous grassy bank opposite the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang, where you get an elevated view of the Fire Boats as they pass by.  It’s great for photos, and the grass makes it a little more comfortable.

What is the route of the Fire Boat Parade?

Luang Prabang’s Fire Boat Parade starts from the Royal Palace Museum goes along the main road of Sisavangvong-Sakkarine to the north at Wat Xieng Thong, and that’s where the Fire Boats are carried down the steps to the Mekong River, mounted on boats and sailed down the river for another procession – although by that time rather dark and hard to see.

The steps by Wat Xieng Thong where the Fire Boats are taken into the water are a well-mannered zoo.  Here you’ll find both the Fire Boats being lowered into the river, and a mix of tourists and locals alike, taking their offerings (that you can buy for 10,000 kip each) down to the riverbank, to light and to let it float away down the Mekong.

What to do during Luang Prabang Festival of Light?

Visit the Temples of Luang Prabang and see the Fire Boats

You can visit the temples and see the various Fire Boats as the finishing touches are put to them.  If you arrive in Luang Prabang during the day of the Fire Boat Parade you’ll have lots of time to walk around and see them.  It is ok to take photographs of the lanterns and the Fire Boats, but be sure to ask permission if you’re taking photographs of individuals or monks (it’s just polite more than anything else!)

Watch the Fire Boat Parade

Get yourself a seat, or find a patch of grass and sit down to watch the Fire Boat Parade, they really are stunning.  Vendors will be walking by with drinks and snacks, so you needn’t worry about how long it’s going to go on.  (It just goes on until it finishes!)

The Fire Boats that you’ll have seen in the streets and in the yards of temples are carried, dragged and wheeled on trolleys.  They’re accompanied by folks from the temple, from the villages around, by music, by banging cymbals, by young villagers carrying candles.

Follow the Fire Boats to the Mekong and Watch them Burn

Eventually, each of the Fire Boats is consumed by fire, caused by the candles that light them or by the river itself, or by both.  It’s a stunning spectacle to watch, both sad and uplifting at the same time.

Make your Own Offering to Buddha and the River

Each family uses banana leaves on a section of banana trunk, then they add flowers, incense sticks, candles, betel nuts and sometimes food and money. At the riverbank, they light the candles, say prayers and send it on its way.  You can buy offerings, banana leaves and candles from vendors throughout the town and make your own offering to Buddha and the River.  Perhaps use it as a way to send away any negativity in your life and make a new start.

Where to stay in Luang Prabang during the Festival of Lights

Book ahead in Luang Prabang!  Luang Prabang is BUSY during this festival (it’s a pretty busy little city at the best of times) and you’d be wise to book your accommodation ahead of schedule.

We recommend staying at the hotel in the old quarter such as Xiengthong Palace (luxury option) or Villa Chitdara Mekong (budget option) where you can watch the parade from the hotel terraces or balcony.

If you prefer a little quiet area, the hotel like Le Bel Air (luxury option) or Thongbay Guesthouse (budget option) will be your choice

Boun Lai Heua Fai photos

Similar Festivals in Asia

Loy Krathong & Yee Peng Festival (Thailand)

Loy Krathong

Also known as Thailand’s light festival, Loy Krathong (or Loi Krathong) is a three-day festival that takes place on the evening of the full moon in the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In Chiang Mai, it’s also celebrated concurrently with Yi Peng or Yee Peng Festival.

During Loy Krathong, locals will gather around lakes, rivers and canals to release beautiful lotus-shaped rafts that are decorated with candles, incense and flowers. The word krathong refers to the decorated raft while the word loy means to float.

While there are different tales about the origins of Loy Krathong, many celebrate this ritual now to pay their respects to the Goddess of Water and to ask for forgiveness for causing pollution.

Krathongs were traditionally made with organic materials like banana leaves, banana tree bark, spider lily plants and bread but you can find different variations now using styrofoam, glossy paper, and plastic. Avoid adding on to the pollution by getting the ones made using natural materials!

Here is the detail about Loy Krathong Festival

Yee Peng

In North Thailand, the Loy Krathong festival coincides with Yee Peng or Yi Peng festival and they’re often celebrated together. During Yee Peng, locals will release paper lanterns into the sky to welcome a brighter future. Many will recognise it as the Tangled-like lantern festival!

The sky lanterns, also known as khom loi, are made using thin rice paper, bamboo and fuel cells. Many make a wish before releasing their lanterns and it’s been said that if it stays lit until it’s out of sight, your wishes will come true!

Here is the detail about Yee Peng Festival in Chiang Mai

Hoi An Lantern Festival (Vietnam)

In the Hoi An Old Town, you just don’t want to miss the Hoi An Lantern Festival. Lantern Festival is one of the most unique attractions of Hoi An and in fact all throughout Vietnam. It is one of the main reasons thousands of both domestic and international visitors flock every year, for a chance to witness such a beautiful scene that cannot be experienced elsewhere.

Lanterns are lit every night in Hoi An regardless of whether it is the Lantern Festival or not. Candles are placed and burned at the bottom of the colorful paper lanterns, creating a glowing atmosphere in the twinkling moonlight.

The Hoi An Lantern Festival will be held once every month. The lantern festival has become popular enough that even if your visit isn’t on the full moon date, you can still participate in the Hoi An traditional full moon festival most nights of the week. There are many things to do in Hoi An beside the festival, but if possible, you should arrange a time to see Hoi An Lantern Festival which has been long regarded as one of the best things to do whilst visiting Hoi An!

Here is the detail about Hoi An Lantern Festival

Boun That Luang (Laos)

The Golden Stupa or Pha That Luang is the national symbol and most important religious monument in Laos and Vientiane’s most important Buddhist festival is Boun That Luang. Traditionally, the That Luang festival is held over three-seven days during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (November). Nowadays, the festival also includes a trade fair which starts a few days prior to the actual festival days.

Here is the detail about Boun That Luang

Thadingyut and Tazaungdaing Festival (Myanmar)

Thadingyut Festival (Myanmar)

Thadingyut takes place for three days during the full moon of the seventh month of the Burmese calendar (usually near the beginning of October), and marks the end of Buddhist lent. It’s a time for families to come together and celebrate Buddha’s descent to earth after visiting his mother in heaven.

Cities throughout the country are especially aglow during Thadingyut. Fireworks haphazardly shot into the night crisscrossed with colorful strings of dangling lights, making this second most popular national holiday wildly delightful. Locals and travelers alike are beckoned to explore radiant streets and illuminated pagodas, all lit up to resemble a welcoming pathway for Buddha’s return to the mortal world.

Consider it luck if the power goes out in Yangon on the actual evening of the full moon of Thadingyut. The occasion becomes even more spectacular when blinking electric lights get replaced with more traditional glowing lines of candles in windows, up rooftops, on verandas, and even along the ground.

Thadingyut serves as a time for respect to be intentionally shown to elders in the family, and to those with highly valued positions in Burmese society such as teachers and bosses as well. In exchange for paying respect and asking for forgiveness, it’s customary to receive pocket money.

Here is the detail about Thadingyut festival

Tazaungdaing festival (Myanmar)

The full-moon night of Tazaungmon, which occurs in the eighth month of the Burmese calendar (usually near the start of November), represents the ending of the rainy season in Myanmar and the beginning of a time to offer new robes and donations at monasteries. It also stems from an act involving Buddha’s mother, in which she spent all night weaving yellow robes for him to wear as he entered into his renunciation of worldly matters.

If you’re sticking around Yangon for the Tazaungdaing Festival, an annual robe-weaving competition held at the Shwedagon Pagoda is worth getting tangled up in. But, if witnessing one of Myanmar’s craziest and likely most dangerous gatherings sounds more appealing, head to Taunggyi in Shan State for its famous candle-lit hot air balloon competition.

Thrill-seekers should be cautious when attending the “fire balloon” festival in Taunggyi, as watching flaming balloons hover and shooting off fireworks over large crowds of people isn’t necessarily the safest thing to do.

As if witnessing the launching of “fire balloons” or neighborhood firecrackers doesn’t already seem thrilling enough, the chance to experience a human-powered Ferris Wheel may be had at Taunggyi’s celebration, or even at one of Yangon’s street fairs.

Here is the detail about Tazaungdaing festival

Bon Om Touk (Cambodia)

Bon Om Touk is a celebration of the end of the rainy season on the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kadeuk. The full moon is considered to bring good luck that can lead to an abundant harvest. On the Western calendar, Bon Om Touk falls either in October or early in November.

The heavy monsoon rains cause the Mekong River to reverse course and backflow into the very large Tonle Sap Lake far upstream. This causes the lake to overflow its normal bounds, which provides plenty of water for Bon Om Touk’s main event, the annual Pirogue longboat race. Once the Mekong and the Tonle Sap River, which connects the Mekong to Tonle Sap Lake, again start flowing toward the sea, you know it is almost time for Bon Om Touk.

Here is the detail about Bon Om Touk Festival

Diwali Festival (India)

Diwali, or Dipawali, is India's biggest and most important holiday of the year. The festival gets its name from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness. This festival is as important to Hindus as the Christmas holiday is to Christians.

Over the centuries, Diwali has become a national festival that's also enjoyed by non-Hindu communities. For instance, in Jainism, Diwali marks the nirvana, or spiritual awakening, of Lord Mahavira on October 15, 527 B.C.; in Sikhism, it honors the day that Guru Hargobind Ji, the Sixth Sikh Guru, was freed from imprisonment. Buddhists in India celebrate Diwali as well.

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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