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Bun Nam

Bun Nam

Vientiane’s "Bun Nam" Water Festival


No country shares closer cultural and social links with Thailand than Laos. The majority of the inhabitants of both countries – Thai and Lao – belong to the same Tai group of peoples, the predominant religion is Theravada Buddhism, and the languages are, for the most part, mutually comprehensible. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Thai and the Lao share many festivals, both sacred and mundane. Thai people visiting Laos – as they are currently doing, in increasing numbers – feel almost at home. Almost, but not quite, for Lao customs and traditions are Tai, not Thai, and as such are often just that little intriguingly bit different.

An interesting example may be found in the Lao celebrations marking the end of Lao Buddhist lent, or bun ok vatsa, 'the festival of the end of the rains', known generally in Thailand as ok phansa, which falls at full moon time in October.

For Thai and Lao alike, the religious significance of lent recalls that, during the rainy season, the Buddha and his disciples would cease their itinerant teaching for a period of three months and go into retreat. The rainy season gives birth to prolific quantities of new life. Everywhere there are swarms of insects, and at such times it is impossible to go about without violating at each step the precept which condemns the taking of sentient life; however small it may be. It follows that, during the three months of lent, monks emulate the Buddha and retire to their temples – hence the Lao name for lent is khao vatsa, or "beginning of the rains" [from the Pali, vassa, meaning rain].

During these three months there is a dearth of the festivals so beloved by the Lao, so that during October, when ok vatsa, or "end of the rains" comes around, the whole nation is ready and eager to celebrate the occasion. Monks are able to leave their monasteries to travel and are presented with robes, alms-bowls, and other requisites such as food, soap and medicines in the ceremony known as kathin, which is also observed in Thailand.

Next, on the night of the full moon, small illuminated rafts traditionally made of bamboo or banana trunk, known in Lao as pathip after the tiny bamboo and oiled wick lamps they bear, are floated down the Mekong as well as the nation's many other lesser rivers and streams. This is to honour the nagas and various tutelary spirits so that they will grant health, happiness and prosperity to all the participants.

Nowadays in Vientiane these traditional rites are accompanied by much the same sort of celebrations one would expect to see on the other side of the Mekong. Amplified pop music, much of it Thai, fills the air. As night falls, small stalls which have been set up everywhere offer kai yang (grilled chicken), somtam (papaya salad) and sticky rice for sale. Other stalls offer traditional games of chance like duck-ringing – a tough prospect, as the ducks seem to know how to keep their heads down and huddle together – where the winner gets to keep the duck.

Happy crowds of people dressed in their best clothes mill about buying pathip, which they carry down to float in the river. Lao beer and local whisky are much in evidence – though drunkenness is rare – and everyone seems intent on having a good time. This is the real beginning of Lao bun nam, the secular water festival, which will continue throughout the next day.

In Laos, with few exceptions, people go to bed early – even on festival days. This is very much the case with bun nam, as everyone has to be up at the crack of dawn for the major activity of the festival, which is boat racing. As in neighbouring Thailand, particularly in the northern and north-eastern regions, kathin celebrations are associated with prapeni khaeng reuaracing elaborately decorated naga boats, some as much as 25 metres in length, each of which requires a crew of 30 to 50 rowers, at least one steersman, and a cox to keep rhythm. When paddled down river at full pace, these beautiful craft can attain surprisingly high speeds.

In Thailand the best known naga boat races are held at Nan and Pichit in the north. In Laos competitions are held everywhere there is water, but the most important races are those held at Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the centre, and Savannakhet and Champassak in the south. National finals are held at Vientiane on the day of the bun nam festival, and from early morning Quai Fa Ngum and the banks of the Mekong as far west as Wat Vattai are packed with eager spectators.

Most of the waterfront is occupied by ordinary folk, but in the centre of Quai Fa Ngum, close by the junction with Chao Anou Road, a section of the river bank is sealed off by ropes and military policemen. Here, in a raised stand facing the river, anyone who is anybody in the Lao People's Democratic Republic – from senior party officials and top military men through visiting comrades to Vientiane-based diplomats – comes to watch the races. The blockage caused by this special enclosure necessitates a detour for ordinary pedestrians through the grounds of Wat Chan, past the remains of a stupa that boasts standing Buddha images in the "calling for rain" posture on all four sides. Most years, by the time bun nam comes around, this prayer has already been answered!

Races begin upstream in the vicinity of Wat Vattai, and pass the finishing line just beyond the special enclosure. On the first day of the festival, races are an all Lao affair, with competitions between the best teams from all over the country. This must involve considerable effort, as boats have to be brought up river by barge from as far away as Champassak, and down river from as far as Luang Prabang. Special races are also held for ladies teams, and great fun is clearly had by all.

Of course the races are also clearly visible from the Thai side of the river, and crowds of interested onlookers gather on the embankment at nearby Sri Chiang Mai to watch the races. On subsequent days races are also held between Thai and Lao teams, most importantly between Nong Khai and Vientiane, though increasingly Thai teams from elsewhere on the Mekong are participating. One unfortunate effect of the cold war, which placed the Laos and Thais on opposite sides of the "bamboo curtain", was the suspension of these joint races at bun nam. Now, happily, as that curtain is swept aside and relations between Laos and Thailand become increasingly cordial, naga boats are once again replacing gun ships in the traffic of the muddy Mekong River.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media