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by Sirsendu Gayen
Buddhist Lent is often called ‘the Rains Retreat’ and is a period of three lunar months during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in one meticulous temple or Wat. The Rains Retreat commences on Khao Phansa Day (usually in July) and ceases three months later on Awk Phansa Day (usually in October). Awk Phansa marks the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent epoch and the traditional end of the rainy season. It is a day of many celebrations. In Luang Prabang, the day is celebrated by observing ' Boun Lai Heua Fai' or 'Festival of the Fire Boats'. This is a carnival to raise the nagas (water spirits) to fetch sensible luck.Monks start the celebration through beautification of the shrine grounds with lights, handmade paper lanterns and candles; the local families do also the same outside their homes. Each village around Luang Prabang make one large boat of bamboo and decorate it with bright coloured paper and candles and in the evening of the festival representatives of the villages will come with their own beautiful ethnic garb and parade alongside the boats through the town and put it on display for some time in 'Wat Xieng Thong' temple. Finally the Boats are set out down the Mekong river to pay respect to the river gods and let their negativity flow down the river. The locals make ’Khatongs’ or little boats out of banana leaves and decorate them with flowers, candles and incense sticks to float down the Mekong river by the evening. Additionally, the general public head to the temple to observe mediation, hear the monks vocalizing and contribute towards charity.In the Laotian language ‘Khao Phansa’ means to linger in one place throughout the rainy season. In English, "Buddhist Lent" means "Rains Retreat". For the duration of Buddhist Lent it is mandatory for monks and novices to linger in one fastidious holy place, and they have to vow to reside in the same place. They never stay in other places overnight throughout this period and practice strict contemplation.