Laotians enjoy nothing more than a celebration. An exceptionally sociable lot, the Lao will use any occasion to gather together to eat, drink and be merry; here are a few of the most popular festivals and holidays in Laos.
Pi Mai Lao
The biggest holiday in Laos is Lao New Year, or Pi Mai Lao. Celebrations last for three days in the middle of April every year. Pi Mai is traditionally centred around cleansing and blessing ceremonies, pouring water and flowers onto the Buddhas in temples, as well as friends and relatives, to bring good luck in the coming year. As the holiday usually falls during the hottest and driest month of the year, the sedate water pouring in temples morphs into fantastic water fights on the streets. Families fill up pick-up trucks and drive around armed with water guns and buckets; roadsides are lined with parties.
Whether in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Champasak or somewhere in between, unless you stay locked in your room all day, it will be a struggle to stay dry. So waterproof your valuables, get yourself some Hawaiian print threads and join in! A word of warning: drunk driving is a particularly serious issue at this time of year. Stay off the roads travelling if you can.
Rocket festivals are celebrated on different weekends in different villages, but usually in late May, to celebrate the near-arrival of the rains and ensuring a bountiful harvest to come by setting off small rockets throughout the day. Laos at this time of year is as hot and dusty as it gets, so the cold Beer Lao flows freely all weekend.
The vehement merrymaking is manifested in village-sized parties that give everyone a chance to blow off some steam before the busy rice-planting season. Rent a motorbike, drive into the countryside and join the fun; be prepared for a complete and utter lack of concern for health and safety.
Loy Khatoung/ boat racing
The Lao traditionally observe Buddhist lent, which usually lasts three months from late July to late October, depending on the lunar calendar. During these months, Buddhists abstain from drinking alcohol, eating meat and smoking cigarettes to honour the months that the Buddha fasted under the Bodhi tree before reaching enlightenment. The end of lent is marked with celebrations and traditional boat racing in the nation’s many rivers.
On the eve of the races, candles are arranged among flowers and banana leaves into boat formations and floating wreaths placed outside homes and into the river for good luck. Parties carry on into the night and are continued the following day at the races. Downtown Vientiane is filled with almighty crowds and streets are closed off for vendors and booths. Be prepared to swim through a sea of people.
Xayaboury Elephant Festival
Located in the west of Laos, Xayaboury is home to rugged mountains, hilltribes, pristine jungle and wild animals, including the largest number of wild elephants in Laos. Every year in February or March, a three-day festival draws people from around the country to celebrate the importance of Laos’ national animal.
While many of the animals are fully or partly domesticated, the spirit of the festival is to raise awareness about the declining population, so fortunately some of the inhumane training tactics witnessed in Southeast Asia are not practised at the festival. The festival also features stalls with local handicrafts and foodstuffs. The town is not big, so guesthouses tend to fill up; book in advance. For more information check their Facebook page.
Western holidays have also been incorporated into the Lao festival calendar. Christmas, Western New Year and Valentine’s Day are all clearly marked — even if largely only commercially — in Vientiane, while thanks to a large ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese population, Lunar New Year is celebrated in late February or early March.
If you pass by a celeration with a couple of bottles of drink and a few useful Lao phrases, do wait to be invited, but you will most likely be welcome to join most any festivity; brace your stomach for the spicy morsels and endless drinks that your hosts will offer .
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 3rd September, 2013.