Luang Prabang during the Festival of the Boats of Lights – Lhai Heua – is a magical place. It’s not Luang Prabang’s biggest festival – that’s Pi Mao Lao (Lao New Year), but it’s definitely the most colourful. It’s a great time to visit – and we arrived the day before the festival and set off climbing Mount Phousi. Then we got up early to attend the famous Luang Prabang Alms Giving Ceremony – Tak Bat. We wrapped up the day by watching the sunset over the mighty Mekong. In total we spent three glorious days in this UNESCO World Heritage area. It was here that we found red roofed temples, French architecture and the sacred Laos Pha Bang.
The city seems to retain an almost village like feel most of the time. (if you can mentally edit out the thousands of tourists). We stayed across the infamous “Old Bridge” on a lane off Phetsarat Road, so we’ve been out of the main area and away from a main road, so we got three decent nights of sleep.
It did mean that we’ve had three days when we walked 10km each day, which isn’t so bad at 0530, but in the middle of the day it’s somewhat hellish. Still we’d hate to break the mad dogs and Englishman tradition that we seem to keep to.
The Festival of Lights
We definitely arrived at a fortuitous time – the day before Lai Heau Fai – the Festival of Lights and the Festival of the Fireboats. (If you want to figure out when it is, because the date of the festival changes – look for the moon phases in October, it’s the night of the full moon when the festival really kicks in).
What is the Festival of Lights?
It’s more correctly known as the Festival of the Boats of Light, or Lhai Heau Fai in Lao. It means floating of boats of light downstream and its celebrated on the night before the end of Lent. 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 river bank they light the candles, say prayers and send it on its way.
Why float things down the river?
There are several 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. (by putting MORE stuff in it…) Secondly it’s 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.
Fireboats are built by different temples and villages – each temple will build two – one – the Heau Fai, which is floated down the river and a second, the Heua Fai Khowk, which will stay on the temple ground. Both are made of bamboo and coloured paper and some are huge. Each temple and village from the area makes boats and they’re judged by a jury before they’re floated down the river.
The Fireboat Parade
On the evening of the full moon, we spent an evening walking around temples admiring the fireboats, and glorying in the beautiful candlelit décor of the Wats and buildings around the old city. Then we joined locals and tourists alike to watch the procession of fireboats.
It 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 fireboats are carried down the steps to the Mekong River, mounted on boats and sailed down the river for another procession – although by that time it’s too dark to really see much at all.
Timing of the Fireboat Parade
We’d been told the procession started at 1800, so we arrived at 1730 to find a place to sit on the grassy bank opposite the Royal Palace Museum, and sat, and sat until it finally started at around 1930. We’d seem many of these boats on the streets, in the yards of temples, lit up sometimes, other times not. They’re accompanied by folks from the temple, from the villages around, by music, by banging cymbals, by young villagers carrying candles.
No one seemed to know what time the boats will go into the water, or if they’d go all together, or one at a time. The steps by Wat Xieng Thong were a well-mannered zoo, 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.
The offerings are made from banana stalks and contain flowers, incense and a candle – which are lit and launched on the river.
Tak Bat: The Alms Giving Ceremony
Each day before sunrise, the monks of Luang Prabang set off on a walk from their monastery to their Wat (temple), taking a regular route and accepting alms of sticky rice, cookies and other food items. What they collect forms the entirety of what they’ll eat during the day.
The monks walk (mostly) in age order, the oldest first, carrying baskets to collect the rice and cookies in. They wear their distinctive saffron robes and are barefoot. Alms have been given by Lao Buddhists for centuries. Now it’s become the biggest tourist attraction in Luang Prabang.
Depending on where (and how) you watch this can either be a simple part of the Luang Prabang daily life in Laos or it can verge on a human zoo. We walked from the Old Bridge, and saw monks heading to Wat Visoun, this was the most simple ceremony that we saw and it was quite simply beautiful. Life going on. No tourists apart from us walking to somewhere else trying to keep out of their way. No photos from there though, it seemed wrong.
Along Sisavangvong it was horrible. Vendors set out mats and stalls to sell sticky rice and cookies.
There are signposts giving prices for alms purchases. Large groups of tourists, hang around and then take to the small stools and mats to take part in the ceremony, friends compete for space, brandishing video cameras and phones to record the event for posterity, many getting in the way of the monks and using flash photography in their faces.
“Stay out of the monk’s way, only do this if it means something to you and dress conservatively” says the tourist office.
It’s a shame more people don’t first of all read that advice and then actually do it!
If you walk to the street parallel with Sisavangvong, you’ll still find tourists watching, but in much smaller numbers, and it’s the locals who are giving alms here, many with a weary look on their faces that indicates that they’ve seen us all before.
I’m very glad we saw this, but I do feel slightly dirty and voyeuristic for having done so, so we left behind the hordes and headed to the top of Mount Phousi.
Climbing to the Spiritual Centre of Luang Prabang: Phousi
In the centre of Luang Prabang is Phousi – the tree clad spiritual mountain with a golden stupa at the top, it’s a favourite tourist spot for sunset, when it becomes very crowded, so we head there at the opposite end of the day – before 0700, paying our 20,000 kip entrance fee after an initial hike up 70 or so steps. It’s just like a Chinese mountain.
Steps all the way, but it only takes us 15 minutes to get to the top and there’s no wonder if gets crowded, it’s pretty small up here, but it’s empty right now as it’s misty and the view is restricted by the low cloud. Still we get to see the Old Bridge, which leads to our guest house and the Mekong, which seems sublime from wherever you see it.
The Royal Palace Museum
The Lao Royal Family ended their reign here in Luang Prabang and the Royal Palace Museum is amazingly still intact. The Pathet Lao forced King Sisavang Vatthana to abdicate in 1975, ending the royal line. The Royal Family themselves were ended two years later, as the communist government exiled him (allegedly of course) to a cave from which he and his family never returned.
We blew 30,000 kip to visit the Royal Palace Museum as despite decades of civil war, the Secret War and the fact that there hasn’t been a monarchy in Laos since 1975, the palace is still standing. It takes us less than 30 minutes to walk around, but is interesting for the fact that this palace is a bungalow. A big one perhaps, but it’s still a single story dwelling. My knees are not allowed uncovered entry (but Nigel’s are) and neither are my bare shoulders and upper arms (cover ups are rented for 5,000 kip). There are no bags or cameras allowed – but they mean big cameras (phone size is ok) and they mean NO BAGS AT ALL. There’s a locker room to leave it all in.
There are signs in Lao and English, but some of them don’t really say much and there’s little to see – the over the top throne room with red walls and mirror inlays, the library with more furniture than books, the king and queens bedrooms and the children’s bedroom which now contains musical instruments.
This is bling Lao style. Seriously so.
There are crystal and bronze Buddha’s of note, gold and silver swords, the kings howdah (elephant seat) and some remarkably large furniture in the bedrooms, other than that.. it’s much more interesting from the outside. The museum is located in the same compound as the temple that houses the Pha Bang.
The Pha Bang
The Pha Bang, Lao’s most sacred Buddha image lives in the Haw Phabang – the gorgeous building by the entrance to the Royal Palace Museum grounds. The Pha Bang itself is tiny. Just 83cm high. There are no photos allowed and shoes must be removed at the staircase before you approach the Buddha. The marble is hot and there’s a distinct smell of burning skin as we skip across the sun scorched floor.
This Buddha possesses miraculous powers that safeguard the country in which it’s enshrined. According to legend, the Pha Bang was cast in gold, silver, copper, iron and precious stones and cast in the heavens above the Himalayas it was then delivered to the capital of Sri Lanka. It then journeyed to Cambodia and Luang Prabang – which was previously called Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, but renamed in the Buddha’s honour to be Luang Prabang (the Great Pha Bang). It’s been stolen by the Vietnamese twice and returned twice as they figured it was bad luck for them.
Wats Around Luang Prabang
The city literally teems with Wats (temples).
The most historic – some say in the entire country – is Wat Xieng Thong – the Golden City Monastery. We avoided it during the day when it was packed with people and when it afforded a 20,000 entry fee even to enter the grounds. In early evening it was gloriously empty and afforded a wonderful view of the full moon.
Luang Prabang is a gorgeous little piece of colonial French architecture mixed with Laos tradition. The Festival of the Boats of the Light is a wonderful time to visit (but book ahead!) – however, no matter when you visit, you’ll find the number of tourists almost overwhelming this small city – so rise early and take siesta, eat early and just enjoy wandering around, its small enough to enjoy on foot.
How We Arrived in Luang Prabang
We arrived in Luang Prabang on a minivan from Phonsavan, where we’d visited the Plain of Jars. The minivan dropped us at the bus station on the outskirts of town and we shared a 10,000 kip each tuk tuk to the old bridge, that we walked across, past the gorgeous Bel Air Boutique Hotel and to our hotel, the Bellvue Bungalows.
Where We Stayed
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 booked at the Bellvue Bungalows across the Old Bridge – outside of the main town area, for a little peace and quiet.
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). As an example, here at the Bellvue we booked online for $US18.77 a night, in person it was US$25 for the same room.
Leaving Luang Prabang
We left Luang Prabang on a boat. A slow boat. We headed up the Mekong River on a two day trip to Houay Xai, we’ll overnight at Pakbeng, mid-way up (as tourist boats don’t travel on the Mekong after dark), so we need to start our journey at 0710 with a tuk tuk to take us to the Slow Boat dock, which is 10km from town. The dock was in the town until a few years ago, when the tuk tuk drivers decided they weren’t making enough money from tourists, so it was moved to be completely inconvenient for everyone apart from the drivers.
We booked the tickets from a tourist agency on the high street for 280,000 kip each. We used the Galaxy Tourist Agency as they were 60,000 cheaper than others, it included a free transfer to the boat.
You can take a MUCH more luxurious trip with Shompoo Cruises. Our you can try and use a tuk tuk (20,000 kip each person) to take you to the Slow Boat dock and buy tickets there, a ticket to Pakbeng will cost you 110,000 kip (and you then buy another ticket at Pakbeng . Another option is to take the Fast Boats, which go all the way to Houay Xai in a day. We’d suggest you book a ticket in town for the Fast Boats (around 390,000 kip) as they only go if they have a full boat – or you pay for 6 tickets! Be sure to buy your lunch BEFORE you leave Luang Prabang, the packaged food options at the boat dock are desparate.
Resources used to plan our visit to Luang Prabang