At dawn on the third day of the That Luang Festival (Friday 3 November 2017), huge crowds gather at That Luang to give alms to the hundreds of monks who have gathered from all over Laos and neighbouring Buddhist countries. The actual almsgiving occurs around 7am following prayers and sermons chanted by senior monks inside the cloister. The sermons are broadcast to the outside esplanade but devotees wishing to claim the best positions inside the cloister begin arriving before 5am.
Crowds gather in the pre-dawn at Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos
The entrance to the That Luang Esplanade at 4.45am
I arrived around 4.45am and the crowds had already begun to fill the spaces in the esplanade, families preparing their mats to sit on and their offerings for Tak Bat (the morning alms offering to monks). Vendors had already set up their stalls, quietly offering their wares for sale – prayer mats, flowers, incense and candles, small packages of biscuits, fruit and cakes to be offered as Tak Bat. People wear their best outfits for this auspicious ocassion and the women wear their finest sinh (Lao skirt). Everyone sits quietly in their groups, listening to the prayers and responding in chorus. Following the prayers, devotees will take their Tak Bat bowl to the monks and give a small portion of sticky rice, food and money to each monk along the rows of tables.
This was where I placed my mat – to the right-hand side of Pha That Luang – as it was less crowded and I could sit quietly, taking part in Tak Bat.
After the almsgiving ceremony, families gather to eat a traditional meal of boiled chicken and Khao Poun (rice noodle soup) either at one of the stalls lining the esplanade or picnic-style on the lawn areas. The atmosphere was definitely one of enjoyment as groups settled in to share their breakfast meal with family and friends.
Enjoying a traditional meal of boiled chicken and rice noodle soup with friends and family, picnic-style
Keeping those pesky flies away from the chicken
Later that afternoon, at around 2pm, a traditional Lao game of Tee Khee is played in the carpark area of the That Luang Esplanade. Tee Khee is a game similar to hockey, played by two teams with a ball and long curved sticks. There is a procession, grandly parading the Louk Khee (ball) from the stupa out to the Tee Khee pitch. The ball is accompanied by Government officials, the Tee Khee players and traditional Lao music and dancing.
The Louk Khee (ball) is ceremoniously paraded onto the Tee Khee ground
The dancers take a break …. Pepsi anyone?
After the Tee Khee game, the festival begins to take on a different vibe – the religious part of the festival is over and it seems that it is a younger crowd that steps out for the evening’s entertainment. Lining the streets into and around the That Luang esplanade are stalls selling all manner of items, food and drinks, with owners spruiking their wares in competition with each other. There is also a children’s entertainment area with fairground rides and a large stage area for an evening concert.
Huge crowds gather for the evening for their last chance to pay homage to the stupa and to have their photo taken in front of Pha That Luang with a full moon shining low in the sky. The evening usually finishes with fireworks set off from the corners of Pha That Luang – but I was too exhausted from a long day to stay for that! There’s always next year!