Luang Prabang during the Fire Boat Festival is a magical and enchanting place to be. This annual event that celebrates the end of Buddhist Lent is a stunning visual display. This article covers everything you need to know about the Fire Boat Festival of Luang Prabang – also known as Festival of the Boats of Light, or Boun Lai Heua Fai. Find out what it celebrates, who gets involved in the Light Festival and how you can get involved, plus details of the Fire Boat parade and what to expect!
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What is the Fire Boat Festival / Festival of Lights?
The Laos Fire Boat Festival / Festival of Lights is one of the most spectacular festivals of Laos.
It’s more correctly known as the Festival of the Boats of Light, or Boun Lai Heua Fai in Laos. (spellings may differ slightly in translations.) It is essentially the celebration of two things – the beginning of the dry season and the end of Buddhist Lent.
Lent in Buddhism is a 3-month period in which Buddhist monks retire to the temple to devote more time to meditation and to gain a greater understanding of the Dhamma, which is the truth taught by Buddha.
In seeing the Boun Lai Heua Fai you’ll be seeing both the celebration of the end of the retreat of the monks and also the end of the wet season in Laos.
Where can you see the Fire Boat Festival / Festival of Light?
Boun Lai Heua Fai is celebrated throughout Laos, but the best places to see it are Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and our favourite, Luang Prabang. We opted for Luang Prabang as its much smaller than Vientiane. It’s also much easier to walk around the temples that are decorated for Boun Lai Heua Fai and see them in Luang Prabang.
When is the Festival of Light in Luang Prabang?
The date of Boun Lai Heua Fai changes every year, but it is usually in the first 2 weeks of October each year. The reason the date for the Festival of Light changes is because it is when Laos celebrates the end of Buddhist Lent. Boun Lai Heua Fai is a Buddhist festival and celebrates the end of both Lent and the monsoon season.
The Fire Boat Festival / Festival of Lights occurs on the night of the full moon in October, so you can either check your moon phases (this site here will help), or you can look on the Tourism Luang Prabang Website, which you’ll find here.
What Happens During the Fire Boat Festival / Festival of Lights?
Boun Lai Heua Fai is a truly unifying festival, this celebration brings together all levels of people from all social classes, the poorest of farmers, the richest of landowners, young, old, laypeople and monks.
Lanterns for the Festival of Lights Are Created and Displayed
Individuals and families make lanterns, usually of bamboo and coloured paper, they use them to decorate their houses, their gardens, streets and temples. These look pretty during the day, but when candles or lamps are placed inside them at night they are stunning.
The Fire Boats of the Festival of Lights Are Built
Each village builds a Fire Boat and each temple builds two ‘Fire Boats”. These seriously elaborate and beautiful Fire Boats are made of bamboo and coloured paper. They’re huge. You have to see them to believe their size.
The Temples build two Fire Boats – one called the Heau Fai which is floated down the river as part of the festival and the other, the Heua Fai Khowk, which remains in the temple grounds.
The Fire Boats are judged by a jury before they take part in the Fire Boat parade.
Bamboo and coloured paper are used as the Fire Boats are lit from within at night creating an enchanting almost magical appearance.
The Fire Boat Parade in the Festival of Lights
On the night of the full moon, the height of the festival, a parade commences after dark, the end destination of the Fire Boat Parade is the Mekong River. The Fire Boats, illuminated by candles, filled with offerings are released to sail on the river.
The Fire Boat Parade Ends on the Mekong River
Fire Boats and other offerings (you can read on about how to make your own offering) are released onto the river for a number of reasons.
Firstly its homage to the river – especially the Mekong which literally stands for “mother of all things” – it’s a way of asking the river and all those divinities that inhabit it for forgiveness for disrespecting it and misusing its water. (which seem somewhat stranger, as this is occurring by putting MORE stuff in it…)
Secondly, the releasing of offerings and Fire Boats into the Mekong is a way to send away negativity – like sickness, bad luck and failures. The festival is also aimed at sending offerings to the dead and paying homage to the Lord Buddha. There is also a hope that the nagas (the water spirits) will bring good luck to the residents making offerings.
All You Need to Know About the Fire Boat Parade
What time is the Fire Boat Parade?
While you’ll see many references to a time that the parade starts – 1730, 1800 and so on. It’s all really rather fluid. The Fire Boats will start lining up at around 1730 and the parade is supposed to start around 1800. It rarely starts before 1900.
Where is the best place to watch the Fire Boat Parade?
There is a fabulous grassy bank opposite the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang, where you get an elevated view of the Fire Boats as they pass by. It’s great for photos, and the grass makes it a little more comfortable.
What is the route of the Fire Boat Parade?
Luang Prabang’s Fire Boat Parade starts from the Royal Palace Museum goes along the main road of Sisavangvong-Sakkarine to the north at Wat Xieng Thong, and that’s where the Fire Boats are carried down the steps to the Mekong River, mounted on boats and sailed down the river for another procession – although by that time rather dark and hard to see.
The steps by Wat Xieng Thong where the Fire Boats are taken into the water are a well-mannered zoo. Here you’ll find both the Fire Boats being lowered into the river, and a mix of tourists and locals alike, taking their offerings (that you can buy for 10,000 kip each) down to the riverbank, to light and to let it float away down the Mekong.
Watch the Tourism Luang Prabang Video of the Festival of Lights
Who is the Fire Boat Festival / Festival of Light for?
Well, as it’s a Buddhist celebration its primarily for Buddhists. Around 50% of the Laos population follows Buddhism. That said, this is an entire community event. You’ll see business involved, sponsoring the creation of the Fire Boats. Tourists can also get involved with the Festival of Lights in Laos.
How can you get involved in the Festival of Lights as a visitor?
Visit the Temples of Luang Prabang and see the Fire Boats
You can visit the temples and see the various Fire Boats as the finishing touches are put to them. If you arrive in Luang Prabang during the day of the Fire Boat Parade you’ll have lots of time to walk around and see them. It is ok to take photographs of the lanterns and the Fire Boats, but be sure to ask permission if you’re taking photographs of individuals or monks (it’s just polite more than anything else!)
Watch the Fire Boat Parade
Get yourself a seat, or find a patch of grass and sit down to watch the Fire Boat Parade, they really are stunning. Vendors will be walking by with drinks and snacks, so you needn’t worry about how long it’s going to go on. (It just goes on until it finishes!)
The Fire Boats that you’ll have seen in the streets and in the yards of temples are carried, dragged and wheeled on trolleys. They’re accompanied by folks from the temple, from the villages around, by music, by banging cymbals, by young villagers carrying candles.
Follow the Fire Boats to the Mekong and Watch them Burn
Eventually, each of the Fire Boats is consumed by fire, caused by the candles that light them or by the river itself, or by both. It’s a stunning spectacle to watch, both sad and uplifting at the same time.
Make your Own Offering to Buddha and the River
Each family uses banana leaves on a section of banana trunk, then they add flowers, incense sticks, candles, betel nuts and sometimes food and money. At the riverbank, they light the candles, say prayers and send it on its way. You can buy offerings, banana leaves and candles from vendors throughout the town and make your own offering to Buddha and the River. Perhaps use it as a way to send away any negativity in your life and make a new start.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang during the Festival of Lights
Book ahead in Luang Prabang! Luang Prabang is BUSY during this festival (it’s a pretty busy little city at the best of times) and you’d be wise to book your accommodation ahead of schedule. We stayed across the Old Bridge – outside of the main town area, for a little peace and quiet
You can walk across the Old Bridge and this area is MUCH quieter and stay at the gorgeous Bel Air Boutique Hotel here.
As usual, when we’ve booked ahead, we always check on arrival what the cost of a room would be if we hadn’t booked. 99% of the time it’s cheaper to book online (and infinitely less stressful.
How to Get to Luang Prabang and How to Leave
The best option for online bookings for buses in Laos is 12goasia – check out routes and options here.