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Gilded temples, Kuang Si Falls, Mount Phousi at sunset…. tick, tick, tick. While we’re all for seeing the sights, timing your trip to Laos with a festival or event gives you the opportunity to meet local people, get involved with traditional activities and even take inspiration for your hobbies at home.
Events in Laos
1. Lao Handicrafts Festival
For unique souvenir hunters or keen craftspeople, the seven-day Laos Handicrafts Festival in capital city, Vientiane is worth a visit. Stalls range from jewellery and art to textiles and pottery, but the demonstrations are the best part.
See the concentration of artisan makers as lumps of rock become chiselled Buddhas, empty looms produce beautiful material and messy strands of bamboo spring into deftly weaved baskets (just to name a few). Don’t just take our word for it, attracting Western fashion designers, the festival’s reputation precedes it. Unique Lao materials have been seen on the catwalks of London, Paris, New York and Milan, no less.
2. Lai Heua Fai (Fire Boat Festival)
Hoi An lantern festival eat your heart out! Laos’ Fire Boat festival, celebrating the end of Buddhist lent, could give Vietnam’s most popular event a run for its money. In the UNESCO town of Luang Prabang, local villagers proudly parade enormous paper boats to the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong temple to be judged, before taking them down to the Mekong River where they are lit with candles and set sail in a blaze.
During a picturesque evening ritual, Lao people also light hundreds of lanterns; some to adorn the temples, and others to float atop the water and send downstream. While you’re unlikely to craft a paper boat masterpiece during your stay, it’s easy to get involved in the celebrations. Join the locals in making your own ‘boat of light’; simply fill an empty banana trunk with a combination of flowers, incense or food and a candle and send it on its way to meet the others.
3. Lao Food Festival
Whether it’s tucking into street food, sitting down for a home cooked meal with a local family, or taking part in a cookery course, Laos has an experience (and a dish) for every type of foodie. Learn about the local food scene and try and bit of everything at this three-day food festival in Vientiane; the brainchild of the Lao Businesswomen’s Association keen to promote the country’s diverse cuisine.
Word of warning: you might need to loosen your belt a notch as you leave. To culturally immerse yourself you need to give every dish a go, obviously.
4. Luang Prabang Film Festival
Film buffs should spare a few hours for the Luang Prabang Film Festival; an event that draws together the best of Southeast Asian film makers with free screenings across the town. Shuttle buses ferry audiences to the Sofitel hotel for films during the day, and when the sun goes down and the warm evenings draw in, movies are projected on to a huge outdoor cinema screen. Seats are first come first served, arrive in plenty of time if you’re angling for a spot near the front.
5. Luang Prabang Half Marathon
Raise money for children, go sightseeing with a difference, and work off some of that street food – everyone’s a winner at the Luang Prabang half marathon. Whether you choose a sprint to top your personal best, or you’re more of a walk-at-a-slightly-quicker-pace-than-usual sort of half marathon participant, you won’t forget passing the Royal Palace, Haw Pha Bang gardens, Wat Visounalat and Mekong river to the cheers of crowds in a hurry.
6. Lao New Year (Pi Mai Lao)
Photo by Nadir Ahmed
New Year (Songkran) celebrations in Laos make our 31st December fireworks and Auld Lang Syne renditions seem on the sedate side. If you’re visiting during New Year in April, pack a mac regardless of the forecast. These street celebrations mean one thing, water.
With water symbolising renewal in Buddhism, the New Year is welcomed with buckets, hoses, and water pistols. Whether you’re staying in a remote village or the centre of a city, chances are you’ll be the victim of an enthusiastic dousing.
Songkran is officially a three-day public holiday, but many people take the whole week off. Some attractions will be closed at this time and it’s worth booking accommodation in advance.