Awe-inspiring. I can only image it’s like the Buddhist version of Easter Mass at the Vatican or the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Envision thousands of monks, wrapped in bright-orange robes and aligned in rows that extend to the rising Golden Stupa as the sun just breaks over the horizon. Tens of thousands, or even more, Laotians prostrated in front of them, praying to the chants echoing throughout the air.
This is the Pha That Luang Festival in Vientiane, Laos, a city overlooked because it’s too sleepy for most travelers. It is celebrated during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, or for the majority of us who are not familiar with the lunar calendar, around the beginning of November — which is a perfect time to be in Laos.
Religion and revelry
The festival pays tribute to the beautiful, towering Golden Stupa, the most important religious symbol in Laos, which, according to belief, enshrines a relic of Buddha. The Laotians begin their celebration with three days of processions and religious ceremonies, followed by seven days of revelry (all day and all night), including a carnival with bands, rides, the Miss Laos beauty contest, and oh-so-yummy street food (I swear I gained ten pounds in one night!). People pay tribute by walking around the temple three times, primarily during the initial religious processions, but also during the festival.
On the last days of the festival, the monks and people gather early in the morning as part of the Taak Baat ceremony. People receive the monks’ prayers, in the hope that they will receive health, prosperity, and luck for the coming year; and in return they line up and give alms to the monks as they proceed past. This ceremony was what made me realize the magnitude of what I was experiencing. I know there are a few festivals in Southeast Asia around November, but the Pha That Luang Festival is one you don’t want to miss.
A bit of preparation is in order when planning to visit the Pha That Luang Festival. As with most festivals, hotels are in high demand, so book early, especially since Vientiane does not cater to tourists as well as Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng do. Transportation to the festival and ceremonies are also hard to find unless you know the correct songtheuw (pickup truck with benches) to catch, so check with your hotel. If you’re trying to reach the Taak Baat ceremony, get started early, even before 6am if you want to get close to the main grounds.
Finally, this is a religious ceremony, so dress and behave accordingly. Please be polite when taking photos, it seems that so many people forget this when they are in Laos. Plus, if you want to enter the inner grounds and circle the temple, women will need to wear a dress or sari, the latter is available near the entrance for a few Kip.