Lhai Heua Fai means “floating boats of light downstream”. This festival is celebrated on the night of the End of Lent. It is held all over Laos, especially where there is a river. The festival in Vientiane attracts big crowds of devotee and tourists but the one in Luang Prabang is even more spectacular. Every family makes a small round container, using banana leaves on a section of banana trunk. They put flowers, incense sticks, candles, betel nuts and other condiments for chewing and sometimes food and money. At the bank of the river, they light the candles, say prayers and send the boat of light floating away. The spectacle of thousands of boats of light with their twinkling candles on the Mekong River is most moving.
This rite has several aims. One is in homage to the river, especially the Mekong River, which literally means Mother of All Things. It is also to ask the river and all divinities inhabiting it for forgiveness for disrespect or misuse of its water. It is also a way to send away all negativity such as sickness, bad luck, shortcoming and failure.
Lhai Heua Fai is also aimed at sending offerings to the dead. But most of all, it is a homage to the Lord Buddha. Temples and villages build their boats of light, which are much bigger and more elaborately decorated. Two types of boats of light are built for that night: the normal Heua Fai, which is to be floated down the river, and Heua Fai Khowk, which will stay on the temple ground. Both are made of bamboo and coloured paper and can be several meters long.
In Luang Prabang, each temple and each village send a boat to join the procession on the main street leading to Wat Xieng Thong. Once at this beautiful 16th century temple, the boats are lined up and a jury awards prizes to the most beautiful boats. After that, one by one, the boats are brought down the staircases of Wat Xieng Thong, reminiscent of a scene from the film Fitzcaraldo when people carry a boat from the mountain down to the river. Then they are delicatedly put on the water and floated down the Mekong River among thousands of small individual banana leaf skiffs in a breathtaking sea of lights.