Despite a communist takeover in the mid-1970s, the landlocked country of Laos remains a Buddhist nation in everything but name. Patriotic holidays are still celebrated, but only the Buddhist holidays entice the Lao people to really let their hair down. Authentic local food and strong drinks can be enjoyed during each and every festivity, as Laos' holidays are actually movable feasts (following local Buddhist tradition). Due to the variance between the Gregorian calendar (the calendar adopted by most of the world) and the traditional Lao calendar that determines local holidays, each celebration includes its approximate Gregorian equivalent.
Some festivals and events in Laos may be canceled for 2021. Please check locally with event organizers and temples for the most up-to-date information.
Bun Pha Wet (January)
This holiday takes place on the fourth lunar month, or the first calendar month, of the year, celebrating the story of Lord Buddha as Prince Vestsantara. Monks bring the Vestsantara Story Cloth through town in a procession known as Phaa Phawet, and gatherers listen to a non-stop sermon read from 14 sets of palm-leaf manuscripts. The most elaborate celebrations of Bun Pha Wet take place at That Luang in Vientiane and Wat Phu in Champassak.
Bun Pha Wet festivities land on different dates in different villages so that Lao townsfolk can celebrate the holiday at home, and then visit loved ones in other villages for their respective celebrations. If you have the chance to visit a local home during this time, expect traditional food, a welcoming atmosphere, and a potential celebration for a male family member who is entering monkhood.
Vietnamese Tet and the Chinese New Year (January or February)
Vientiane's considerable population of Vietnamese and Chinese people makes the celebration of both the Vietnamese and Chinese New Year extra special. Head to the cities of Vientiane, Pakse, and Savannakhet for three days in February to take part in typical Chinese New Year's traditions, like parades, fireworks, and visits to temples. During this time, the locals also decorate their homes, hold intimate dinner parties with family, and exchange gifts. Vietnamese and Chinese businesses will most likely be closed, and the influx of Chinese travelers to Laos will be prevalent.
Boun Khao Chi (February)
During the third full moon in the lunar calendar, a festival is held to commemorate the original teachings of the Buddha to over 1,000 monks who arrived spontaneously to hear him speak. During the three days and nights of Boun Khao Chi (or Makhaboucha), worshipers circle their temples bearing candles and religious chanting fills the air. Locals take part in traditional dancing and sporting competitions, like volleyball and petanque (similar to bocce). Grand celebrations take place in Vientiane and at Wat Phou in Champassak, where the ruins of Wat Phu come alive with festivities that include buffalo-fighting, elephant racing, and Lao music and dance performances.
The Lao New Year (Bun Pi Mai) takes place in mid-April and lasts for three days. During this time, the whole country shuts down to worship and celebrate. At the temples, locals participate in washing the Buddha statue, which, in turn, evolves into a water fight, or "water throwing," as the water coming from the Buddha washing is considered good luck. The constant drenching is a great relief from the heat this time of year, as April tends to be the hottest month in Laos. For the locals, the water festivities are their way of calling for rain during the dry season. Head to Bun Pi Mai in Luang Prabang to witness this festival in its prime. You may even see votive sand stupas erected in many yards throughout the village.
Bun Bang Fai (May)
Bun Bang Fai (or Rocket Festival) takes place on the full moon in May as a way to usher out the dry season and make way for the rainy season. Bamboo rockets are launched into the air as an offering for rain to fall and flood the country's rice fields. This can also be a time of silliness, as the festival's origins date back to a fertility rite and play on the phallic symbol of the rocket. Performances known as mor lam take place throughout the country, with singers humorously depicting the difficulties of life in rural Laos.
Khao Pansa (July)
Khao Pansa marks the beginning of the Buddhist equivalent of Lent—a time of fasting and contemplation for monks, and one of the best times to enter monkhood. The monks' retreat period is three months long, beginning with the full moon in July, and ending on the full moon in October on a day known as Kathin. It's during this monsoonal season that they settle down in monasteries and forgo the usual practice of traveling from temple to temple, as roads can be impassible, making travel dangerous. To support this gesture, Buddhist worshippers gather in the temple and offer food, flowers, incense, and candles to the monks. Many also take this time to obtain from alcohol themselves and visit the sites of deceased relatives.
Haw Khao Padap Din (August or September)
The Lao demonstrate their immense respect for dead kin on Khao Padap Din. This celebration takes place on the fifteenth day of the waning moon in the ninth month of the Lao calendar. On this day, families prepare large pots of sticky rice with coconut milk, then wrap it around a banana and enclose it in a banana leaf. This pack, called khao tom, is then steamed until cooked and distributed to relatives, friends, and monks at the temples. In the early morning, packets of offerings, including khao tom, are put in the four corners of Laos homes—the stairs, the spirit house, the rice storehouse, and on the gate—so that the spirits can reach them. Then, families descend on the temples for Buddhist readings and an evening procession.
Awk Pansa (October)
The three-month Buddhist equivalent of Lent ends on Awk Pansa. This is the day that monks roam free from their respective temples and receive gifts from worshiping townsfolk. As evening falls in Laos, people release banana-leaf boats carrying candles and flowers into the river for a ceremony known as Lai Hua Fai (similar to Loy Krathong in Thailand). Riverside cities like Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang celebrate the day with Bun Nam boat races along the Mekong. Thousands of people gather to take part in the merriment, complete with food stalls and sideshows. Come evening, spectators gather along the Mekong River to watch the mythical water dragon, Naga, spit-up red fireballs. While some believe the folklore and some do not, everyone uses this time to chill on the banks and enjoy food and drink while they wait to view the phenomenon.
Bun That Luang (November)
On Bun That Luang, monks gather at the stupa in Vientiane to accept gifts and alms from worshipful townsfolk. For a whole week during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, the Pha That Luang temple comes alive with a fair, contests, fireworks, and music, topped off with a wien thien, or candlelight procession. An international trade fair also takes place during Bun That Luang, promoting tourism throughout the countries in the Mekong sub-region. While all of Laos celebrates this festival at their local temples, the truly vibrant festivities exist in the city of Vientiane, complete with visitors, tradespeople, and tourists.
Lao National Day (December 2)
On December 2, 1975, the proletariat of Laos overthrew the royalist Lao government resulting in a renaming of the country, Lao People's Democratic Republic. This recognized government holiday includes celebrations in the form of parades, speeches by Lao politicians, and red flag displays of the hammer and sickle everywhere. Poorer communities sometimes postpone their Awk Phansa celebrations to coincide with Lao National Day, saving themselves the considerable expense of celebrating two major holidays only a month apart.