Wat Phou Festival
Experience the Wat Phou Festival, a connection through generations
Next Festival will fall on the 9-11th of February 2017
For as long as she can remember Bobby Saithong, a Champasak local and tour guide, has looked forward to the annual Wat Phou Festival. This year is no different. ‘It’s a great atmosphere,’ she explains. ‘It’s just really exciting with so much to see. I want my children to enjoy that, so we are looking forward to taking them there.’
As a child Bobby accompanied her own parents to the festival, getting up early to prepare the special Tom Gai Sai Mot Deng (Chicken and Red Ant Soup) that is a specialty of this event and which her family sold at a festival stall each year. The red ants have a sour taste, an important flavour in the region’s cuisine more commonly provided by the tamarind fruit.
‘Nowadays, it wouldn’t be necessary to use the ants,’ Bobby says with a grin. ‘But they are delicious and everyone loves them, so we just keep making it that way.’
The three-day Wat Phou Festival is the largest in Southern Laos, drawing pilgrims from around the country and across the region. ‘The Festival is very important to me’, says Mme Somleth Phosalath concession holder of the Wat Phou temple complex. ‘It is a way to pay respect to the spirits of an ancient site’. The event has been organised for many years and throughout her life, she always tried to attend. This year 4000 lights will be lit at night at the temple complex.
Dating from the 5th century and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Wat Phou is a spectacular setting for this event that combines religious dedication with the strong community spirit that is so much a part of Southern Laos. Running simultaneously with the festival is a fair showcasing local cuisine, crafts, and traditional theatre and dance. Sleeping on a mat by her family’s stall, Bobby remembers weaving in and out of the crowds, selling banana cakes. With the money she earned, she bought trinkets and candy, joining in the various games and watching the parades that are a feature of this much loved event.
During the first days of the festival, visitors make their way to the main shrine to ask for protection and blessings from Lord Buddha; offerings are also made at the smaller shrines around the complex. On the last day of the festival, senior monks from across Laos lead chants, broadcast on speakers to the many men, women and children sitting outside among the frangipani trees and wafting incense. The monks then move silently along the lines of people waiting to offer them sticky rice and other gifts in the traditional tak bat (alms giving) ceremony.
Tourists are welcome to take part in this alms giving, provided they dress respectfully (shoulders and knees should be covered) and do not try to interrupt or touch the monks. Local people tend to give food but as Phou La, an elderly monk at nearby Wat Nong Sa explains, in fact you can give what you like – the point is in the humility of giving something. Now in his seventies, Phou La has experienced well over fifty Wat Phou festivals. He says there have been a few changes over the years but for the most part this event is a constant, year after year honouring the traditions of people gone before and the religious importance of this temple.
It is this connection to history that inspired Mr. Soulivan, owner and artist at Champasak Pottery in Champasak town, to give up his job as a guardian of Wat Phou and learn the ancient stonemasonry techniques that were used to build the awe-inspiring temples of the Angkor Wat complex in neighbouring Cambodia, and Wat Phou itself. Mostly self-taught, Mr. Soulivan visits Wat Phou regularly, where he says he feels a sense of peace and belonging like nowhere else.
‘I think visitors to Wat Phou, even those from overseas, they sense immediately that this is a special place,’ he says. ‘The festival is really important because we think about our ancestors and what they have created here in Wat Phou, and we can honour that.’
Taking place on the 15th day of the 3rd month of the lunar calendar, the next Wat Phou Festival will fall on 9-11th February, 2017.