Lhai Heua Fai (festival of the lights) celebrates the end of Boun Awk Phansa (Buddhist Lent). It feels like Easter, Christmas and new year all rolled into one. The event takes place around October and lasts three days but preparations start weeks in advance.
Novices and monks create delicate lanterns made from bamboo and brightly coloured paper to decorate the temples. It actually becomes a bit competitive with each temple wanting to display more lanterns than the others. A few weeks before the festivities, I visited a temple on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, to make lanterns for the festival in the shape of stars. It was really tricky. Bamboo structures of two stars need to be made then you need to attach them together at the ends using elastic bands. To make it three dimensional you need to fit sticks between the stars. Only problem was the pressure kept pinging the stars apart. When the structure of the lantern is finished they can be covered in paper and decorated with patterns and accessories. By the weekend of the festival there are hundreds of lights covering the temples. Beautiful by day and memorising at night, take the time to explore each temple and the different lantern styles. You’ll be surprised what you find – I spotted football logos and a Lao Airlines plane.
Interacting With Buddhist Monks & Novices
You should always try to be lower than the monk. If a monk is walking down the street if possible you should step down off the curb and if they are sitting, you should sit too before speaking to them. When seated ensure you feet are pointed away from them. Avoid eating or snacking around monks, particularly in the afternoon as they don’t eat in the afternoon. You should only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk. Women should not pass anything directly to a monk and must instead place the object down to allow them to pick it up. This is to avoid the woman touching the monk as even brushing against them be accident could make them uncomfortable.
Buddhist Temple Etiquette
Temples are primarily a place of worship so be respectful and quiet. Before entering a temple your shoulders and knees must be covered and you’ll need to remove your shoes and hat. It will be obvious were to leave your shoes outside the temple. Never touch or sit near a Buddha statue or even the platform the statue sits on. If you choose to sit your feet should point away from the Buddha statue. Pointing is considered rude so to indicate something, use your right hand with the palm facing upwards. You should walk backwards when exiting the temple and get some distance between you and the Buddha before turning your back.
All the way down the river bank on the last evening of the festival, you’ll also see small twinkling lights. These are called krathongs. Made with a base of banana trunk with banana leaves folded in patterns around the sides to make a sort of basket. This is then filled with bright orange flowers and finished with incense sticks and candles. Sometimes families include food and money. At the river bank, the candles are lit, prayers said and the boat of light is sent floating away. You can buy a krathong from many stalls around the town or make your own. I made mine in the library and gave a donation for the materials.
Later in the evening much larger lights are sent floating away. On the weeks leading up to the festival, the surrounding villages create an enormous floating lantern. Each is unique and incredibly detailed taking on shapes like birds and dragons. The creations are showcased on a procession down Main Street to Wat Xiengthong, where they will be judged. It’s spectacular and the only way to experience it is on the street. Most restaurants have outdoor seating so you can grab and table and watch the spectacle. There’s music and hundreds more handheld lanterns in all sorts of shapes carried alongside the boats. Once the winner in announced everyone heads for the river. Follow them and enjoy the beautiful chaos.
The world heritage city of Luang Prabang is flooded with people from the surrounding villages and hundreds of tourists. Be sure to book accommodation in advance and arrive a few days before the festival to enjoy the preparations.
For more information for your stay in Luang Prabang click here.
Visited October 2016
Little Amy Tours