Vientiane, the biggest city and capital of Laos, is a quiet and sleepy city full of wonders from its Buddhist temples to the French colonial-influenced architecture.
Vientiane on its own is worth a visit for a couple of days, even if the main touristic attractions are in Luang Prabang and in South Laos (you can check the links to my article on those two beautiful areas). The Yearly That Luang festival is both a religious and historical celebration of the iconic Golden stupa. The best time to visit Vientiane is, with no doubt, during the festival in November so my post will showcase that amazing event (with far too many images 😊) and then the other places to discover in Vientiane.
The yearly Thad Luang Festival is both a religious and historical celebration of the famous Golden stupa
The festival is spread over three days during the twelfth lunar month and is, again the best time to visit Vientiane (so Check the dates carefully, should be 26-28th November in 2023 and 31-15th November in 2024)
Laotians from all corners of the country descend on Vientiane to celebrate the Festival of the Golden Stupa (Boun That Luang)
Like many Buddhist holidays, it’s a time for worship, celebration, and spending time with family. For photographers, this is as well the opportunity to shoot beautiful people in their most beautiful dresses.
Of course, there are as well literally thousands of monks that converge to the event…
That Luang story: A very resilient shrine …
Pha That Luang is the most famous Laos Landmark and religious monument in the country, as it is believed that That Luang houses the Buddha’s hair and breastbone.
It was originally built as a Hindu temple in the 3rd century, then Buddhist missionaries brought the holy relic to the stupa after the death of Buddha, then it fall into ruin until the 13th century when it was rebuilt as a Khmer temple, which also fell into ruin 😢
When Luang Prabang king Setthathirath transferred the capital to Vientiane (Wieng Chan) in the 16th century, he ordered the relocation of That Luang away from the city center and it was then destroyed again through the waves of Siamese, Burmese and Chinese wars during the 17 to 217th centuries
That Luang was then abandoned until the French restored its original design in 1900. It was again reconstructed in the 1930s, and heavily damaged again during the Franco-Thai War to be finally reconstructed after the end of the second World War to its current look. Such an epic history 😢
Today, beyond the religious aspect, the festival is as well a celebration of the nation’s resilience, as well as a recognition of King Setthathirath who moves down the capital. Its statue is in front of the entrance…
So, here are some of the main activities during each of the three days to orientate your visit
Wax Castle Processions (day 1 evening and 2 afternoons)
The That Luang Festival doesn’t start at the stupa, but at Wat Si Muang, the second most important Buddhist landmark in Vientiane.
At sunset on the first evening, devotees arrive for a candlelight procession involving “wax castles”. Those are tall creations of yellow “trees”, with wax petals and are festooned with gold paper and kip notes.
You’ll find later in the post additional information about Wat Si Muang temple. On day 2, The procession continues the next afternoon with a departure from Wat Si Muang, toward That Luang. People wear their best clothes for this procession, so it is really worth seeing the start of the procession at Wat Si Muang
As a tip for photographers (and those who what to see the best of the festival), the procession will move toward That Luang partly by car so it is much better to get in front of that, pass the hundreds of commercial shops and wait for the procession on the main esplanade.
Of course, again, this is an amazing opportunity to discover various Laos ethnic costumes and a paradise for portrait photography 🤩
… with many beautiful people not in costumes but simply wearing their best dresses…
The main event is however inside the walls of the shrine. As it gets packed very quickly (and then they close the doors), it is strongly advised for a prime spot to get there early (ask local police for procession time) and wait. There is then an official parade of men and women dressed in various Lao ethnic costumes who dance and play traditional music and songs around the stupa
The worshippers slowly walk around the stupa three times clockwise, led by the Wat That Luang monks chanting the ancient words of Buddha.
Then all devotees will continue their clockwise turns, prays, and donations …
… offering endless opportunities for photographers and culture lovers
… even the communist government police and soldiers are active devotees and peaceful participants 😊
After that, you can then take a well-deserved break, ensuring you come back before sunset for the continuation of the festival described below.
Candlelight procession (Day 2 evening)
As for the afternoon procession, “prime seats” (inside That Luang) require arriving early (before sunset) and waiting for the twilight procession. But sunset from inside is anyway a great opportunity in the meantime …
As the light goes down, devotees will continue praying and lighting candles and incense sticks…
… providing a magic moment and endless photography opportunities
The families will then install themselves at the foot of the holy stupa
Devotees start to do their 3 tors clockwise, creating magical long-exposure photography opportunities
Then comes eventually the moment for the most beautiful procession, led by countless temple monks
The monks, in long exposure photo, become almost like an orange wave
At the end of the three rounds “official” procession, people will continue their donations and prays …
… as well as filling their Instagram profile 😂
Night fireworks (Day 2 end evening)
Later in the evening (ask for time but not always 100% clear 😢) is a beautiful firework
It is gorgeous from the foot of the Tad Luang but, likely much better with perspective from the main square. So, you should anticipate (I did not 😢) at the end of the procession and exit quickly – as it is so crowded that it takes time to move- .…
Almsgiving procession (Day 3 morning)
Yes, it was a long evening, but you should be back the following morning (before dawn 😌) at That Luang as thousands of people will converge to give alms to hundreds of monks who come here from around the country, and to pay homage to the stupa.
The Tak Baat celebrations, like in Luang Prabang, begin at 7 am, but crowds begin arriving at the stupa before 5 am to secure the best positions inside and around the cloister, to pray and prepare their offerings.
Both inside and outside, The That Luang esplanade is full of monks who assemble to receive their offerings.
I personally recommend to photographers this time to stay outside and around the cloister for perspective on the golden stupa. This is as well because, during the alms-giving ritual everyone sits quietly and listens to the prayers, offering an amazing moment for those who love photography or cultural events
Devotees will have different ways to ray, like releasing birds from cages or pouring water on the ground to satisfy the female earth goddess (Ngamae Thorani) or simply praying as families
This mass communion moment as the sun rises on the esplanade is pretty magic
Everyone tries to go inside the stupa when the formal part of the ceremony has ended for more donations or to light candles and incense again, and pray for good luck.
If you did not have enough yet (😊), this is another opportunity for interactions and photography opportunities with the monks and the devotees…
A traditional picnic follows and then Tikhy (Lao long curve stick Hockey) follows this. There are as well concerts on the esplanade. There is then a last candlelight procession under the full moon, closing that world-class festival
OTHER VIENTIANE WONDERS
If you come to Vientiane outside of the yearly highlight of the festival, there are still many beautiful places to discover so it is worth spending two full days there and not jumping straight to Luang Prabang, the South of Laos, or other areas of that gorgeous country.
Yes, I think I overdid the point on that place above, still gorgeous outside of the festival
I mentioned Wat Si Muang as the starting point of the procession but, on its own, this is one of the most beautiful places in Vientiane.
The gold structure was built during the 16th century (during the reign of King Setthathirat ) and that Khmer temple is a fascinating legend that still holds strong significance among the Laotian community
The temple’s name comes from a young woman, Si Muang, who sacrificed herself over 400 years ago to appease angry spirits. The legend says that she threw herself into a hole in the ground where the building’s central pillar was to be placed, and was then crushed by the massive pillar 😢.
This remains today a very active temple …
Sunset/twilight is another (with mid-morning) great time to visit for different lights, colors, and perspectives
It is great to watch people coming in and out at nighttime, and even driving in (likely after work) for a short prayer, showing how central religion remains in Laotian society.
Ho Phra Keo (or Haw Phra Kaew) in the center of town is a former Buddhist shrine dating back to the 16th century
Today, it serves as a museum of religious arts in Vientiane. It is as well worth having a look around the sunset
Wat Si Saket is the only temple in the entire Laos that survived the Siamese occupation. It is famous for hosting over 10,000 Buddha sculptures of varying sizes and styles.
The temple also has beautiful architecture so worth to have a look – All temples downtown are close to each other anyway-
There are some interesting stupas/funeral tombs in the garden
On the main street toward Tad Luang, have a look at the Patuxay Monument meaning ‘victory gate’. It is dedicated to the Laotian fight for independence from the French in the 1940s and is a copy of Paris Arc de Triomphe.
It is beautiful/colorful at night with the fountain nearby but did not work during my visit 😢
25 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, on the riverbank of the Mekong (and border between Laos and Thailand), is a famous sculpture Park that is really worth a visit
The park was started in 1958 by Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Bunleua Silurat, a priest-shaman who integrated Buddhism and Hinduism
The statues are made of reinforced concrete and apparently built by unskilled workers under Bunleua Silurat’s supervision (and amazing creativity)
An enormous 40-meter-long reclining Buddha is one of the landmarks of the park
One other notable sculpture called the giant pumpkin (that’s how it looks) with three stories representing hell, earth, and heaven three levels that can be entered through the mouth of a 3-meter-tall demon head
You can find endless statues of gods, demons, and humans, and many photography opportunities
And of course many statues of Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu, and others
So that park is, again, really worth a visit and spending an hour or two walking around
So, I hope my post will engage you not only to visit Vientiane but to synchronize your trip with the That Luang festival. You can have a look as well at my articles about Luang Prabang in the North, and the South part of Laos.