Boun That Luang, or simply “That Luang” for short, is one of the most important of national public holidays. It is a Buddhist celebration centred around the That Luang, the name of the oldest and most highly acclaimed of all Buddhist temples (stupas) in Laos.
The That Luang Festival occurs for three consecutive days, beginning on the full moon of the twelfth month of the Buddhist Calendar. This will generally put the festival sometime in November on the Gregorian Calendar.
The That Luang stupa was originally a Hindu temple, built in the First Century A.D. By Third Century A.D. it became a Buddhist temple. It had to be rebuilt several times throughout its long history, and the modern building was built in 1566.
Inside the That Luang is believed to be certain relics of Buddha. The temple is covered in gold and sits in the middle of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.
During That Luang Festival, Buddhist monks gather at the stupa for religious ceremonies. They make offerings, offer incense, circle the stupa thrice, and do other religious rituals meant to earn merit. There are also musical and dramatic presentations at the festival, and both people and monks participate.
Wax Castle Procession
The festival starts with a candlelight wax castle procession (phasat) in the evening then continuing in the next afternoon at Wat Simeuang. Groups of people in their best clothes gather and walk three times around the main hall of temple.
There is also a parade of men and women dressing in various Lao ethnic costumes who dance and play traditional music and songs when proaching the stupa. The “wax castles” are not actually castles, they are created by yellow trees with gold paper and kip notes.
They, though, look like the castles carrying candles, incense and flowers, beat drums and cymbals. People sing when walking around the Wat. The so-called wax castles have been a part of Lao lifestyle for many years, bringing one to Pha That Laung on this occasion is believed to bring considerable merit.
The following morning (the last day of festival) a huge crowd assembles at dawn That Luang to give alms to hundreds of monks who come here from all regions of the country, and to pay homage to the stupa.
The celebration is known as taak baat beginning at 7am in the grounds of the That Luang, but thousands of devotees begin gathering inside the cloister and around it before 5am to secure the best positions, to pray and prepare their offerings.
Both inside and outside the cloister, That Luang’s esplanade is full of monks who assemble to receive their offerings.
During the alms giving ritual, everyone sits quietly and listens to the prayers. Some people pour water on the ground to ask Ngamae Thorani (a female earth goddess) to tell the spirits of their relatives to come back and receive their offerings, whilst others release birds from cages to make merit.
As the formal part of the ceremony has ended, everyone tries to go inside the stupa to give alms to the monks, to light candles and incense and pray for good luck. After the ceremony, each family gather at stalls to eat Khao Poun, the national rice noodle soup and Tom Kai, chicken soup.
Tikhy or Lao Hockey Game Particular to That Luang festival
In the afternoon, everyone will gather on the esplanade for the traditional game of tikhy, which is played with a ball and long curved sticks, resembling a game of hockey.
The game used to be played by two opposing groups, one symbolising the people and the other the establishment.
Nowadays, it is considered a more light-hearted sporting event between two teams of the Vientiane municipality. Nevertheless, the procession to accompany the ball (louk khy) from the stupa to the grounds and back.
The festival draws to a close under a full moon, when people from all over Laos will crowd around the Pha That Luang (stupa) for one last candlelight procession, bearing posies of flowers, incense and candles.
Normally these days there are also firework displays to mark the end of the celebration. Also during That Luang festival there are trade fairs and concerts and funfairs held around the esplanade.