Laos is a land of festivals and celebrations. The Lao people love any excuse to have a party or family get together, but while they are all celebrated with enthusiasm, the majority of these festivals are based in the Buddhist faith that dominates the country and hold an important religious significance for Lao people. Festival dates may be flexible as they are tied to the lunar calendar.
If you are planning to travel to Laos it is worth trying to take some time to enjoy these special times with the locals, who will welcome your joining any festive event. But be prepared to find towns you might be expecting to be peaceful, to be a lot noisier and more crowded during these times, especially during Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year in mid-April) in Luang Prabang, Boat Race Festival in Vientiane in October and the Wat Phou festival in Champassak in February.
Many smaller festivals occur in villages and provinces around the country all year depending on the ethnic group living in the area.
Below I have listed the major festivals in order of occurrence throughout the year.
Bun Pha Vet celebrates the jataka or birth-tale of Prince Vestsantara, the Buddha's penultimate life. It is also considered particularly auspicious time for ordination as a monk.
Late January - February
Chinese/Vietnamese New Year
There are many people of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage who live in Laos as well as migrants from these countries, and the New Year celebration is an important time for them. They celebrate with lion dances and fireworks and special foods.
This day is celebrated on the full moon of the third lunar month and commemorates the preaching of Buddha to the 1250 enlightened monks who came to hear him "without prior summons". It involves a vien tien - a candlelight procession - around most wats
The Sikhotabong Festival
This religious festival takes place in the province of Khammouant five hours drive south of Vientiane, on February 5 to February 8 at the Sikhottabong stupa, located about 6 km south of Thakhek.
The Wat Phu festival
This religious festival is held at the pre-Angkorian Wat Phu site every year in Champassak province about 10 hours drive south of Vientiane. It is held on the full moon of the 3rd month of lunar calendar (in 2012 it falls on 6-8 February). A trade fair of products from the southern province of Laos,Thailand,Cambodia and Vietnam is also held.
The Elephant Festival
The elephant festival is organized annually in Xayaboury province. More than 50 elephants and their mahouts from around the area gather to demonstrate working techniques and all things elephantine. Homestays are available.
Boun Khoun Khao
This is a harvest festival celebrated at local temples and wats.
Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year)
This is the biggest festival of the year all around the country. It is partly a religious festival as it is the time Buddha images are cleansed, but is it also an all-out water festival. For three days be prepared to get wet wherever you go as water is thrown on everyone. In Luang Prabang there are traditional processions and many other events.
This day is considered the day of Buddha's birth, enlightment and death. It falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon in the sixth lunar month and is celebrated with ceremonies and candlelit processions in the temples.
Rocket Festival (Boun Bang Fai)
This is a fun festival when many villages get together and fire huge homemade rockets into the sky to call for rain for the planting season. Be prepared for noise, crowds and lots of beer drinking.
Boun Visakhaphusa celebrates the day of Buddha's birth, enlightenment and passing away. It's also a time to pay respects to ancestors.
Boun Khao Phansa
This is the beginning of the three-month long Buddhist Lent. All monks stop travelling and stay at temple for prayer and meditation. It's also time for ordination of men entering a monkhood.
Boun Haw Khao Padup Din
This ceremony is an offering to the Ancestors' Spirits. It is a tradition that this time of the year those spirits are believed to have released from the "plain of hell" to receive offerings. It is followed by Boun Haw Khao Salark, 15 days later, which is the day when offerings are made to the Ancestors' spirit on their last day before returning to the afterlife and the day they can take the offerings and prayers with them.
Luang Prabang Boat Racing festival
This is held in September, the same day as Boun Haw Khao Padup Din, and includes boat racing on the Khan River and a trade fair in Luang Prabang city. At the Khao Padup Din ceremony day, people visit local temples to make offering to the dead as well to share merits making.
Boun Awk Pansa
This day marks the end of Buddhist Lent. In the evening there is lighting of candles in and around the temples and the lovely ceremony of Lai Hua Fai or fireboats, where small "boats" made of sections of banana tree trunks decorated with flowers, and lit candles are floated down the nearest river. It is believed these small boats will take away any bad luck and bring good luck.
This is the day that the Naga (mythical water spirit) is supposed to send fireballs into the sky from the Mekong and its tributaries has become a big attraction for many people who flock to the river banks to try to sight these elusive fireballs.
Boat Racing Festival
It is celebrated along the rivers all around the country, although not always on the same day, and involves boat races in traditional racing boats.
Vientiane Boat Racing Festival is huge and the town shuts down as food stalls and games and fairs take over the riverfront.
That Luang Festival (or Boun That Luang)
The That Luang Festival takes place at the golden That Luang stupa or Pha That Luang in Vientiane. It involves many religious events including a dawn taak baator offering where hundreds of monks from all over the country assemble to receive alms and floral votives on the first day of the festival. There is a colourful "wax castle" procession between Wat Si Muang and Pha That Luang and a type of hockey game. The festival also includes a trade fair and many concerts and other events. It ends with fireworks and music and a candlelit procession (vien thien) of That Luang.
Hmong New Year
Hmong New Year celebrations frequently occur in November and December, traditionally at the end of the harvest season when all work is done and normally take place where large Hmong communities exist. During the New Year's celebration, Hmong dress in traditional clothing and enjoy traditional foods, dance, music, bull fights, and other forms of entertainment. This time also serves as a matchmaking occasion when young men and women meet and make marriage plans.
Lao National Day
This celebrates the 1975 victory of the people over the monarchy. However it is mainly a day for government events and public participation is limited to flying the Lao and Communist flags.