Boun That Luang: Inside Laos' Festivals

Boun That Luang is a Lao Buddhist celebration and the largest national holiday in Laos. The festival is held in the capital Vientiane over three days during the full moon of November, the 12th lunar month.

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Festival Information

Pha That Luang dates back to the 16th century. That Luang translates as "Great Sacred Stupa." It is the national symbol and the country's most important religious monument. It has been destroyed, ransacked and renovated numerous times. The site is sacred to the Lao people and the stupa's tip is believed to enshrine a relic of the Buddha.

During the festival all government offices close and school children are given time off to celebrate. In Australia, America, Europe and other foreign countries with Lao ex-patriate communities, Boun That Luang is a more modest celebration and may not be much more than a visit to the local Buddhist temple. These out-of-country celebrations don't come close to the grandeur of the festivities in Vientiane.

People from all over Laos congregate to celebrate the occasion, with three days of religious ceremony followed by a week of daytime and nighttime festivities. The people's procession begins at Wat Si Muang in the city center and makes its way to Pha That Luang. People make offerings to the monks to accumulate merit for rebirth into a better life. The religious part concludes as the people, carrying incense and candles as offerings, circle Pha That Luang three times in the Buddha's honor. Festival entertainment includes music, both traditional and popular, as well as dramatic performances.

With plenty of opportunities to take memorable photos, festival shutterbugs should be aware that there may be a cost associated with the privilege. Accounts from online travelogues have mentioned body searches and a 40,000 kip fee (about US$5) for bringing a camera into the festival grounds. Still, for the pictures you'll get the small fee is probably worth it.

Health & Safety

Those traveling to Laos should seek out medical advice about vaccinations and endemic diseases well before their departure date. There have been avian influenza poultry outbreaks in northern Laos provinces and travelers should avoid contact with birds both domestic and wild. Malaria exists throughout the country except in Vientiane, and typhoid and cholera occur in some areas. Other risks include hepatitis E, plague, dengue fever, and schistosomiasis if swimming in the Mekong river. Travellers' diarrhoea is a problem for many. Visitors should steer clear of dairy products, uncooked meat and fish, salads and unpeeled fruit.

Medical care in Vientiane is very basic and outside the capital there are no reliable facilities to deal with medical emergencies. Medical evacuation is difficult to organize and very expensive. Travellers are advised to take out comprehensive medical insurance, and those who have an unstable medical condition should consider not travelling to Laos.

Most visits to Laos are trouble free, but violent crimes such as robbery are on the increase. Foreigners have been assaulted after having their drinks or food drugged. Be careful accepting drinks from strangers, and do not leave food or drinks unattended. There have been bombing incidents and attacks on buses in recent years resulting in injury and death, mainly in Vientiane. These appear to have been linked to domestic disputes rather than international terrorism, but visitors are warned of the possibility of being caught up in such incidents. Theft of passports is a problem and travellers are advised to take care, avoid carrying large sums of money and keep valuables and documents in a safe place.

Travel in some rural parts of Laos is dangerous because of banditry and unexploded ordnance. Visitors should also note that an ID document or passport should be carried at all times and should be presented on demand or a heavy fine could be imposed.

In some of the smaller towns electricity is available only in the evening. Power outages are common and a flashlight is a useful item to have with you.

Customs & Etiquette

Short and revealing clothes are generally not acceptable, and public displays of affection are taboo in Lao society. Avoid touching anyone on the head or using the feet to point at anything. Appropriate dress and behaviour when entering places of worship is essential. The Lao government prohibits any sexual contact or relationships between Lao nationals and foreigners, unless married under Lao law; penalties may involve heavy fines or imprisonment. It is illegal not to carry an identity document. Photographing military sites is prohibited.

Food & Drink

Lao food is similar to Thai. Vietnamese, Chinese, and other international food is also widely available. Many restaurants have English menus.

Lao tea (nam saa) is usually offered free in restaurants. Lao coffee is served strong and sweetened with plenty of condensed milk. Soft drinks are imported and tend to be expensive. Mineral water is widely available. Lao beer is excellent and now exported globally. 'Lao Lao' is the local firewater and known for producing both gut rot and hangovers.

Travellers to Laos during November should seriously consider timing their visit to be in Vientiane during Boun That Luang. As always, there are few safety considerations to bear in mind to ensure a smooth and trouble-free visit. Do that, however, and you're set to enjoy the week-long festivities and national revelry of Boun That Luang!

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