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That Luang: A Guide to Laos’ Most Famous Festival

In the UK, November is synonymous with fireworks and Bonfire Night; Americans associate this month with turkey, stuffing and Thanksgiving. In Laos, November is a much-celebrated month, as well – but Laotians are not lighting sparklers or roasting turkeys to mark the occasion. Rather, they’re taking part in the Boun That Luang festival, a renowned event that takes place during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. Steeped in legend and complete with wax castles, parades, special meals and even sporting events, this festival is an integral part of Lao culture. Here’s how Laotians celebrate Boun That Luang, and how you can celebrate yourself.

Rooted in religion

The Golden Stupa, or That Luang, is a spectacular Buddhist monument located in Vientiane that has come to be known as the national symbol of Laos. The Boun That Luang festival takes place in and around the stupa over the course of three days. 

Day One: A Parade of Wax Castles

The festival begins with an impressive parade: ‘wax castles’, tall models of yellow trees made with wax petals, are carried around the main hall of the temple. This procession pays tribute to the legend of Nang Si, a pregnant woman who is said to have thrown herself under the city’s founding pillar as it was being constructed. Nang Si is honoured as the guardian of the city, and in addition to the wax castles, people carry candles and flowers in her remembrance.

Day Two: The Dancing Procession

The next afternoon, another procession is held. On this day, people wear their finest clothes, play music and dance. Once they reach the stupa, they circle it slowly three times, led by chanting monks.

Day Three: Solemnity and Sport

The third day of the festival is the day of the taak baat celebrations. In the morning, the worshippers congregate at That Luang and make offerings to the monks in and around the stupa. During taak baat, people pray, light candles and even release birds out of cages for good luck. After these prayers and offerings, people sit down to a picnic of boiled chicken and rice, enjoying a meal with their loved ones. 

While the morning is a time for solemn prayer and reflection, the afternoon is more lighthearted. Once people have eaten, they gather to watch the traditional game of tikhy, a sport played with long sticks and a ball. Traditionally, one team was composed of villagers and the other of city officials, but now the teams are not limited to these groups.

Finally, after a full day of celebrations, people once again gather around That Luang for one final procession by candlelight. A fireworks display, concerts and fairs have also become part of these closing festivities – Boun That Luang ends with a bang!