By Courtney Ridgel
If you find yourself in a position to visit Southeast Asia in November, we recommend heading over to Luang Prabang to experience a particularly beautiful and interesting festival – Awk Phansa or the Festival of Lights – which marks the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent.
Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes. The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions. The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.
We asked Onkeo, our Laos Country Director, about Buddhist Lent and Awk Phansa:
What is Buddhist Lent?
Khao Phansaa Day is on the first day after the full moon of the eighth lunar month and marks the beginning of the three-month rainy season. The tradition of Buddhist Lent or the annual three-month rains retreat known in Lao as “Phansa”. ‘Khao Phansa’ means to remain in one place during the rainy season. The Khao Phansa festival is a major Buddhism merit-making festival. During Buddhist Lent monks and novices are required to remain in one particular temple, and they have to swear to live in the same place; they can’t stay in the other places overnight. During this period monks will be strictly practicing meditation. Every day of the full moon, monks have to gather in one temple to recite “Phadhimoka” or 227 rules of monkhood.
There is a story of monks who travelled during in this period and damaged local plantations, and news of this event reached the Buddha. Therefore, the Buddha didn’t allow monks to wander to other places during the rainy season – they have to find a proper place or a temple to stay in. This is a time for contemplation and meditation. The monks meditate more, study more and teach more.
How long does it last?
During the rainy season – 3 months from July – Sep/Oct. This year it falls from 8th July – 5th Oct 2017.
What do the local people do during Lent?
Some people give up something for Lent – drinking alcohol, smoking, eating meat… Most people also go to the temple more to practice mediation, listen to the monks chanting and to give alms.
What did you do to celebrate Awk Phansa last year?
Last year I have had a wonderful time with my family on the Awk Phansa day (End of Buddhist lent day), my family all went to the temple in the early morning for alms-giving to the monks, and later we all prepared and cooked a big lunch and celebrated together. In the evening we went to the temple to join the candle light ceremony. Sadly, last year I missed the fire boat parade in town, which I promised I will go see the parade in town this year with my kids and family.
Why should guests visit Laos during this time?
During this period it’s the green season, with very nice scenery (green forest plus fresh air). It’s also a good chance for guests to travel to Laos as they will see more activities happening at the temples and can see how the local people celebrate the Lao way and traditions. Guests can see more farmers growing veggies on their farms and rice paddies. It might be rain somedays, but only for 1-2 hrs.
If this festival sounds like something you’d enjoy partake in – check out our Awk Phansa touring, which can be added to any itinerary.