FEATURE: Boun Kongkhao, a rice festival steeped in tradition

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - Visitors to Laos should not miss the annual Boun Kongkhao festivities (the rice stack festival) which are currently taking place to celebrate the rice harvest.

This is the perfect time to experience this festival and Lao people always enjoy this celebration of their traditional way of life.

Boun Kongkhao dates back to ancient times and has been passed down from one generation to the next to mark the all-important rice harvest.

Usually the festivities are organised towards the end of December or at the beginning of January as this is when rice harvesting is at its peak. This is, therefore, also a good time for farmers to relax and enjoy the fruits of their hard labour.

Some villages hold this event at a temple but often it takes place on open ground at the heart of the community. The festival spans two days and a night or more depending on the way the villagers want to celebrate.

The hallmark of the festival is that rice is donated by villagers which is then stacked in huge piles. Before the festival kicks off, the local administration of the district, village or community runs a campaign to collect rice. The amount of rice donated is determined by the organising committee and can be unlimited.

After the festival, the rice is sold and the money collected is added to the village fund or donated to the local temple.

The festival serves to preserve local culture as well as being a tourist draw.

Last year, the biggest event was the Great Rice Stack Festival (Boun Kong Khao Yai) held in Phieng district, Xayaboury province. The festival attracted thousands of people, including foreigners.

This year the event is taking place in the district’s Somsavanh village.

The celebrations started on Tuesday and the official opening ceremony took place on Thursday. The event continued till Sunday. The locals gave visitors a warm welcome and the authorities made sure there was enough accommodation and other facilities. There were a range of activities on offer to showcase the traditional way of life.

Events included performances by various ethnic groups, as well as exhibitions and demonstrations of the lifestyle of the Tongleuang  people. This apart, there was a demonstration of tamkhao (a foot-operated rice threshing machine) and fartkhao (rice husking).

A street fair featured products made by local ethnic groups and a food cooking contest also kept visitors entertained. A beauty contest, a singing contest and sports competitions were also held.

The Deputy Governor of Xayaboury province, Mrs Bounphak Inthapanya, said “Boun Kongkhao Yai is organised annually in Phieng because the district is famed for its rice.”

“It is also a big visitor draw. Each year nine rice stacks are built with one being a lot bigger than the others. This stack indicates the unity and solidarity of the whole community and the eight smaller ones represent the eight ethnic groups to be found in Phieng district.”

Mr Bountien, a local resident, said the festival was organised as a way to preserve longstanding cultural traditions.

“A committee organises the festival to preserve local traditions. They hope that it will encourage young people in particular to be proud of their traditional way of life and want to perpetuate our customs,” he said.

“This isn’t the first time our district has organised this festival. This year, the event is bigger as we want to attract more people.”

“The festival indicates that there is an abundance of rice in our district. We get good yields and there is sufficient rice for local consumption this year as well as for sale. So it’s a good time to unite and celebrate this success.”

“I am happy to help organise the festival. We have many things on offer and to make guests feel welcome. It’s a special time for our district and people from other villages and districts visit us and take part in the festivities.”

“It is an important event for everyone in the district because it takes place only once a year.”

“We have celebrated this festival for decades over successive generations. It’s important to keep it going because it doesn’t take place in most parts of the country.”

“It doesn’t just help to preserve our culture - it also encourages friendship, solidarity and peace among participants and villagers.”

“There’s plenty to interest people of all ages and I would like to invite everyone to come along.”

Elsewhere, Sangthong district in Vientiane will hold a Boun Kongkhao in Phialath village from January 15 to January 23.

Locally produced goods will be on sale along with traditional performances and other forms of entertainment. The organising committee invites the general public and visitors to attend the event and experience something uniquely Lao.