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Introduction to Lao Calendar, Holidays and Festivals

The following paragraphs were taken from Laos Handbook by Joshua Eliot and Jane Bickersteth (marked FP), and Laos, a lonely planet survival kit, by Joe Cummings (marked LP). Guidebook ordering instructions are detailed at the end of this section.

The Gregorian calendar is the official calendar for administration, but many traditional villages still follow the lunar calendar. The Lao calendar is a mixture of Sino-Vietnamese and Thai-Khmer calendars. It is based on the movement of the sun and moon and is different to the Buddhist calendar used in Thailand. New Year is in December, but is celebrated in April when the auspices are more favorable. As in China, each year is named after an animal. Weeks are structured on the waxing and waning of the moon and days are named accordingly. (FP)

The traditional Lao calendar, like the calendars of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, is a solar-lunar mix. The year itself is reckoned by solar phases, while the months are divided according to lunar phases (unlike the Western calendar in which months as well as years are reckoned by the sun). The Buddhist Era (BE) calendar usually figures year one as 543 BC, which means that you must subtract 543 from the Lao calendar year to arrive at the Christian calendar familiar in the West (e.g., 1997 AD is 2540 BE according to the Lao Buddhist calendar). An earlier Lao system--seen in some archaeological inscriptions--follows a scheme in which year one is 638 BC (e.g., 1997 AD = 2635 BE). (LP)

Festivals in Laos are mostly linked to agricultural seasons or historical Buddhist holidays. The general word for festival in Lao is bun (or boun). (LP)

January

Bun Pha Wet

This is a temple-centre festival in which the jataka or birth-tale of Prince Vestsantara, the Buddha’s penultimate life, is recited. This is also a favoured time (second to Khao Phansaa) for Lao males to be ordained into the monkhood. The scheduling of Bun Pha Wet is staggered so that it is held on different days in different villages. This is so that relatives and friends living in different villages can invite one another to their respective celebrations. (LP)

February

Magha Puja (Makkha Bu-saa, full moon)

This commemorates a speech given by the buddha to 1,250 enlightened monks who came to hear him without prior summons. In the talk, the Buddha laid down the first monastic regulations and predicted his own death. Chanting and offerings mark the festival, culminating in the candlelit circumambulation of wats (temples) throughout the country (celebrated most fervently in Vientiane and at the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu, near Champasak). (LP)

Vietnamese Tet & Chinese New Year

This is celebrated in Vientiane, Pakse and Savannakhet with parties, deafening nonstop fireworks and visits to Vietnamese and Chinese temples. Chinese and Vietnamese-run business usually close for three days. (LP)

March

Boun Khoun Khao

A local harvest festival celebrated around local wats. (FP)

April

Boun Pimai (mid-APR--public holiday typically lasting for three days)

This is to celebrate Lao New Year. The first month of the Lao New Year is actually December but festivities are delayed until April when days are longer than nights. By April it’s also hotting up, so having hoses levelled at you and buckets of water dumped on you is more pleasurable. The festival also serves to invite the rains. Pimai is one of the most important annual festivals, particularly in Luang Prabang. Statues of the Buddha (in the "calling for rain" posture) are ceremonially doused in water, which is poured along an intricately decorated trench (hang song nam pha). The small stupas of sand, decorated with streamers, in wat compounds are symbolic requests for health and happiness over the next year. It is celebrated with traditional Lao folk singing (mor lam) and the circle dance (ramwong). There is usually a 3-day holiday. Similar festivals are celebrated in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. (FP)

Pi Mai

The lunar new year begins in mid-April and practically the entire country comes to a halt and celebrates. Houses are cleaned, people put on new clothes and Buddha images are washed with lustral water. In the wats, offerings of fruit and flowers are made at various altars and votive mounds of sand or stone are fashioned in the courtyards. Later the citizens take to the streets and douse one another with water, which is an appropriate activity as April is usually the hottest month of the year. This festival is particularly picturesque in Luang Prabang, where it includes elephant processions. (LP)

May

Labor Day (01 MAY--public holiday)

Visakha Puja

Celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, celebrated in local wats.

Boun Bang Fai (rocket festival)

The rocket festival is a Buddhist rain-making festival. Large bamboo rockets are built and decorated by monks and carried in procession before being blasted skywards. The higher a rocket goes, the bigger its builder’s ego gets. Designers of failed rockets are thrown in the mud. The festival lasts 2 days. (FP)

Visakha-Busaa (Visakha Puja, full moon)

This falls on day 15 of lunar month number 6, which is considered the day of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbaa (passing away). Activities are centred around the wat, with much chanting, sermonising and, at night, beautiful candlelit processions. (LP)

Bun Bang Fai (rocket festival)

This is a pre-Buddhist rain ceremony that is now celebrated alongside Visakha Puja in Laos and northeastern Thailand. This can be one of the wildest festivals in the country, with plenty of music and dance (especially the irreverent mor lam performance), processions and general merrymaking, culminating in the firing of bamboo rockets into the sky. In some places male participants blacken their bodies with lamp soot, while women wear sunglasses and carry carved wooden phalli to imitate men. The firing of the rockets is suppose to prompt the heavens to initiate the rainy season and bring much-needed water to the rice fields. (LP)

June/July

Children’s Day (01 JUN--public holiday)

Khao Phansaa

Is the start of Buddhist Lent and is a time of retreat and fasting for monks. These are the most usual months for ordination and for men to enter the monkhood for short periods before they marry. The festival starts with the full moon in June/July and continues until the full moon in October. It all ends with the Kathin ceremony in October when monks receive gifts. (FP)

Khao Phansaa (also Khao Watsa, full moon)

This is the beginning of the traditional three month "rains retreat" during which Buddhist monks are expected to station themselves in a single monastery. At other times of year they are allowed to travel from wat to wat or simply to wander in the countryside, but during the rainy season they forego the wandering so as not to damage fields of rice or other crops. This is also the traditional time of year for men to enter the monkhood temporarily, hence many ordinations take place. (LP)

August

Haw Khao Padap Din (full moon)

This is a sombre festival in which the living pay respect to the dead. Many cremations take place--bones being exhumed for the purpose--during this time, and gifts are presented to the Sangha so that monks will chant on behalf of the deceased. (LP)

September

Boun Ok Phansaa

This is the end of Buddhist Lent and the faithful take offerings to the temple. It is month number 9 in Luang Prabang and month number 11 in Vientiane, and marks the end of the rainy season. Boat races take place on the Mekong River with crews of 50 or more men and women. On the night before the race small decorated rafts are set afloat on the river. (FP)

October

Awk Phansaa (Awk Watsa, full moon)

This celebrates the end of the three-month rains retreat. Monks are allowed to leave the monasteries to travel and are presented with robes, alms bowls and other requisites of the renunciative life. On the eve of Awk Phansaa many people fashion small banana-leaf boats carrying candles, incense and other offerings, and float them in rivers, a custom know as Lai Hua Fai, similar to Loy Krathong in Thailand. (LP)

Bun Nam (water festival)

A second festival held in association with Awk Phansaa is Bun Nam (water festival). Boat races (suang heua) are commonly held in towns located on rivers, such as Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Savannakhet; in smaller towns these races are often postponed until National Day (2 December) so that residents aren’t saddled with two costly festivals in two months. (LP)

November

Boun That Luang (photo)

Is celebrated in all Laos’ thats (stupas) although most enthusiastically and colourfully in Vientiane. As well as religious rituals, most celebrations include local fairs, processions, beauty pageants and other festivities. (FP)

That Luang Festival (full moon) (photo)

This takes place at That Luang in Vientiane. Hundreds of monks assemble to receive alms and floral votives early in the morning on the first day of the festival. There is a colourful procession between Wat Si Muang and Pha That Luang. The celebration lasts a week and includes fireworks and music, culminating in a candlelit curcumabulation (wien thien) of That Luang. (LP)

December

Hmong New Year

Lao National Day (02 DEC--public holiday)

This celebrates the 1975 victory of the proletariat over the monarchy with parades, speeches, etc. Lao national and communist hammer-and-sickle flags are flown all over the country. Celebration is mandatory, hence poorer communities postpone some of the traditional Awk Phansaa activities–usually practised roughly a month earlier--until National Day, thus saving themselves considerable expense (much to the detraction of Awk Phansaa). (LP)

Bun Pha Wet

This is a temple-centered festival in which the jataka or birth-tale of Prince Vessantara, the Buddha’s penultimate life, is recited. This is also a favoured time (second to Khao Phansaa for Lao males to be ordained into the monkhood. The scheduling of Bun Pha Wet is staggered so that it is held on different days in different villages. This is so that relative and friends living in different villages can invite one another to their respective celebrations. (LP)

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   Laos Handbook by Joshua Eliot and Jane Bickersteth

   Buy the book today!

and

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   Lonely planet Laos (3rd Edition) by Joe Cummings

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