Festival of Lights

It is the eve of the Boat Racing Festival in Vientiane and the whole city centre is in festival mode. In the last couple of weeks the quiet little city centre has morphed into party central. People from the nearby villages arrive daily in jumbo tuk tuks, there are long queues at the banks, and it seems every car and motorbike in Vientiane is on the streets.

There are thousands of stalls selling every Lao specialty: grilled meat, fish, seafood, insects, fruit, veggies, and intestines of all shapes and sizes; duck embryo eggs, hard boiled eggs, buffalo jerky, chicken feet, and laap; soup, noodles, sticky rice, fried rice, and pancakes; dried seaweed, spring rolls, and dumplings; fresh salads, fresh fruit, gelatinous cakes, ice cream... the list goes on.

Hungry yet?

In addition, there are stalls hawking everything but the kitchen sink - the usual oodles of plastic stuff from China and Vietnam, clothes, shoes, and toys; plus some big commercial operations in prime position with laundry detergents, nappies, phones, beer and yoghurt. (Yes, yoghurt).

Microphones and loudspeakers blare deals to passerbys. The roads are closed, inner city temples have opened their gates for parking, and makeshift motorcycle bays have sprung up wherever a spare 2 metres can be found.

Along the riverbank itself, they have erected carousels, ferris wheels and jumping castles. Someone mentioned dodgem cars. There's fireworks, drums, strobe lights and music. It's Vientiane's regular night market in overdrive. Above all, there's a tremendous air of excitement. 

In the midst of the chaos though, the Laotians haven't forgotten what it's all about. The boats of course will be racing over two days, with the main dragon boats on Wednesday (a national holiday).

More importantly, it is the end of Buddhist Lent and the official end to the wet season. Which means giving alms to the temples, washing away the ills of the past year and opening up to good fortune for the coming year. 

People are visiting the temples in droves. In the morning, they pray and give offerings of food (often sticky rice) and money (10,000 kip or more if they can afford it). In the evening, they visit again, taking flowers (usually orange marigolds and sometimes orchids) and candles to light. This may happen several times a week.

And tonight, there is lai heua fai, "floating boats of lights". From sunset and into the night, the Mekong and every river in Laos is set alight with thousands of little banana leaf 'boats' decorated with flowers, a little money (1,000 kip) and lit with a single candle. People make this offering to the river to thank it for all the water in their lives.

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The kids made a banana leaf boat complete with flowers and a candle. Unfortunately the flowers and leaf have since wilted and died. They also made a huge cardboard boat that has withstood the humidity a little better.

Tonight, we'll make our way to the Mekong and light a candle or two for the coming year. And watch the offerings drift out slowly in a river of hope and good cheer.

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Do you get into the festive spirit, or skip the madness and leave town?