Lighted boats pay homage to Buddha

This time is awash with celebrations and festivals in Laos and Ork Phansa – th e last day of Buddhist Lent – is perhaps one of the most flamboyant and magical of them all. Lao people, ever famous for their handicraft abilities, fashion miniature longboats (heua fai khok) from banana leaves and decorate them with a myriad of vibrantly-coloured flowers, candles, incense and sticky rice.

These banana leaf boats are held together with bamboo, and either end is shaped like the head of a naga – a legendary serpent that dwells in the waters of the Mekong. People believe that making these boats and the lighting of candles brings Buddha into their home and brings harmony and good luck to the family residing there.

Some people choose to set off fireworks or place lighted candles around their house to ask for blessings from the naga and from Buddha.

Tui is a young boy who celebrates this tradition along with his family. He says his mother continues the custom, which she learnt from her own mother, and they believe that setting up a decorated boat at their home brings luck and protection from the naga.

On this occasion each year he wishes for health and success in his studies as he lights the candles around his house. He says the sight of the flickering flames bring him happiness and contentment, regardless of whether his wishes are granted or not.

As well as celebrating at home, Tui joins his friends at the Mekong where they also set banana leaf boats afloat on the river. These colourful craft are known as heua fai nam, and are also decorated with flowers, incense and lighted candles. In Vientiane, they are sent bobbing down the Mekong in a stunning procession, which crowds collect at the riverbank to see.

Those with boats make their way to the water’s edge to cast them adrift in homage to the river spirits and to dispel bad luck and illness in the coming year.

Some broken- hearted youngsters believe their pain will be carried into the river through this ceremony and could help them to be luckier in love next year.

Some temples display boats which are made by the resident monks. The monks work hard to create various styles of boat, which provide an enchanting spectacle for those who turn out to see them lit up as night-time falls.

According to a monk at Vientiane’s Ongteu temple, lai heua fai should include both forms of boat – heua fai bok and heua fai nam – which have their origins in India.

Heua fai bok call on the naga to ward off bad luck and to bring happiness to the family and keep them safe, whereas the heua fai nam are set upon water, when people gather to dispel bad luck along with the boats they send downstream.

Fireworks light up the night sky and in some sections of the Mekong River it is said that mysterious fireballs can be seen rising from the water as the river-dwelling naga make their presence felt.

Lao people believe the fireballs are the nagas’ way of honouring Buddha for the three months of mediation he undertook during Lent.

Source: Vientiane Times