The That Luang Festival in Vientiane, Laos truly is an amazing experience – if you are travelling to Vientiane around early November you will certainly not be disappointed with the festivities this laid-back little capital has in store for you!
The That Luang Festival, or Boun That Luang, is held every year during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (i.e. early November) but as this celebration is linked to the lunar cycle, the dates will vary slightly each year. Check Tourism Laos for dates. This year the dates for the festival were Wednesday 1 November to Friday 3 November 2017. This religious festival is held in and around Pha That Luang (That Luang Stupa) and various celebrations take place over a three day period. Worshippers make a pilgrimage to That Luang at this time of year at least once in their lifetime, travelling from all over Laos and neighbouring Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Pha That Luang, or Golden Stupa, is the most important religious monument in Laos, indeed it is the national symbol, appearing on many government logos and kip notes. The original site is believed to date back to the third century AD, whilst the original stupa has been altered and remodelled into its current inverted lotus bud shape. The actual That (or Stupa) itself comprises three levels: the base, the body and the spire and is believed to contain Lord Buddha’s hair and breast bone.
All that glitters is indeed gold! The spire on top of the central stupa at That Luang has recently been refurbished and contains 9kg of gold.
The individual festivities are a little tricky to work out as, with most things in Laos there is usually no official timetable, but I have done the hard yards cycling back and forth between several temples and am now able to break it down for you.
Religious festivities actually begin at dusk on the evening of day 1, not at That Luang itself, but rather at Wat Si Muang, where devotees bring “wax castles”, flowers and incense to pay homage to the City’s foundation pillar and Nya Mae Si Muang (or Lady Si Muang) who is the protector of Vientiane City. This festival is small and intimate and I enjoyed quietly watching families and small groups walk three times around the main hall of worship as they paid their respects to the Vientiane City pillar.
The “wax castles”, or Phasat Pheung are not actually castles but tall structures decorated with banana leaves, wax flowers and elaborate strings of kip notes and gold paper. Originally, Phasat Pheung were made from banana trunks and leaves but these days are more likely to be made with a polystyrene base with many villages and organisations commissioning elaborate affairs. The wax castles range in size from small, simple affairs offered by a couple or family, to elaborate “houses” festooned with all manner of decorations, offered by villages, organisations or schools.
A rather elaborate wax castle!
The festival proper begins on day 2 when at 2.00pm a large procession gathers at the Eastern Gate of the That Luang cloister. The procession is led by senior monks from Wat That Luang, followed by men and women in traditional Lao outfits representing the different Ethnic groups. The procession carries their wax castles three times around the Grand Stupa accompanied by the banging of traditional drums, music and songs.
Once the official parade has entered the main stupa, monks lead the chanting of the ancient words of Buddha. Following the religious chanting, the doors to the main stupa are opened and the rest of the parade forces its way inside.
The doors to the main stupa are opened and the crowds surge in!
Families, villages, organisations and schools will get together to purchase a wax castle to represent themselves and as a group, will make their way to That Luang Stupa, often accompanied by a mobile speaker system (my particular favourite!) providing the music to dance and sing their way into the central cloister.
Once the wax castles have been carried three times around the Grand Stupa, they are offered to the That Luang shrine, where devotees will pray and also offer incense and candles.
Walking clockwise three times around Pha That Luang.
A quiet moment of reflection during the festivities
Paying respects at Pha That Luang
Crowds circle the main That Luang Stupa three times in a clockwise direction
See That Luang Festival 2017 – Part 2 for the final days’ festivities.
Lane Xang Ave (continue on from Patuxai Park along Rue 23 Singha), Vientiane
Open Daily 08:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00
Admission: Free during That Luang Festival.
Please note: Lao Sinh (traditional skirt) must be worn by women to enter the central cloister. These are available for hire outside That Luang for around 10,000kip. Both women and men must be modestly attired with shoulders and knees covered.