January 31, 2017

Xayaboury's Great Rice Stack Festival promotes local culture and heritage

 Video Credit:  Vientiane Times, January 18, 2017

By: Vientiane Times, January 18, 2017

Compared to the annual Elephant Festival in Xayaboury, Phieng district's Great Rice Stack Festival is not quite so well-known to tourists but it offers a chance to witness the beautiful local traditions and customs that have been celebrated for decades.

This year's festival is being held from January 8-12 making it bigger than other years. The first day started with small processions of villagers bringing their crops to the festival along with various activities and the one district one product (ODOP) fair which is displaying locally made products until the end of the festival.

On the first evening of the festival there was a preliminary round of the Miss Rice contest to select young women from each village for a spot in the final. Then the eventual winner was decided which was celebrated by colourful fireworks.

Early on Monday morning local authorities hosted the festival's official opening ceremony with a great procession featuring more than one thousand people from 51 villages which also announced district level ODOPs. Following the ODOP announcement, visitors could get up close with traditional sports and other activities along with a rice basi ceremony, drum beating contest, traditional food contest, and alms giving ceremony held over the following days.

President of the Xayaboury Great Rice Stack Festival organising committee, Mr. Bouthsabong Chaluenphong, who is also President of Phieng Lao Front for National Construction, said Phieng district has a flat landscape with forested mountains and was known for its agricultural production area, especially rice.

Mr. Bouthsabong said the festival was traditionally organised for decades in small village events spread throughout the province to express appreciation for the rice harvest season and to collect rice for local temples' fundraising efforts.

In the past, Phieng district was often bypassed by tourists; however, since 2010 the district authority has developed the festival into a larger event with activities and the building of the great rice stupas as the event's symbol. This aimed to preserve and promote local culture, agricultural production and attract more visitors to the district.

The great rice stupas were also designed and built in 2010 by villagers of the district with the structures made of wood and covered by real rice stalks. There are nine stupas with the centre one being 27 metres high and the others being nine metres high.

This year the organising committee has turned the inside of the biggest stupa into a museum which is exhibiting the heritage of the district including ethnic groups' clothing and a collection of ancient artefacts.

One of the exhibition's highlights is the Malabri ethnic group, who are considered to be last remaining hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia. The Malabri people inhabit forests in the western part of Xayaboury province.

Mr Bouthsabong said after seven years and attracting a lot of visitors he thought the festival had contributed to improving Phieng people's living conditions.

The festival brought 6,000-7,000 visitors to Xayaboury province last year, with most coming from Vientiane, Luang Prabang and some from Thailand. Organisers expected that visitor numbers would increase for this year's event.

The district is now planning to develop more tourism destinations in order to offer more variety for tourists apart from the festival.

According to statistics from the Tourism Development Department, Xayaboury province had 192 guesthouses, hotels, resorts, restaurants and entertainment establishments in 2015, an increase from 169 in 2014. Visitor numbers have also increased from about 87,700 people in 2013 to 96,000 in 2014, and 99,900 in 2015.

Apart from also visiting the elephant festival, tourists often spend their days visiting other tourist sites in the province especially waterfalls, stupas, caves, cultural villages, as well as the Nam Phui National Protected Area which is home to wild elephants, gibbons, gaur and other large animal species.

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