Tsa Hauv Toj – Hmong New Year

Lao coffee

One Saturday morning in Luang Prabang with Kevin, we saw some older men having coffee at a corner shop. We sat down and ordered cups for ourselves. One of the men spoke a little English, and Kevin speaks a little Thai. (Since there is a lot of Thai TV in Laos, people recognize some of the words.) Between the two languages, Kevin was able to understand that the man was telling us about a “festival” that started today. He motioned to the road we needed to take, and after we finished our coffees, we headed in that direction.

Road to the festival

The motorbikes that that passed us had drivers and passengers wearing colorful costumes, so we knew we were on the right track. Soon, the bikes started pulling off down a dirt road, and we followed the flow of traffic into a big open field. We found the Hmong New Year party.

arriving at the festival

Giant bouncy house

boy with shark balloon


boys gambling

Ice cream vendor

grilled chicken feet

The Hmong are a minority ethnic group spread throughout Southeast Asia. They face significant political and social discrimination in Laos and over the last several decades many have fled to Thailand, the United States and other countries.

Woman and baby

After each harvest season, after performing their own household ceremonies and traditions, Hmong people get together to celebrate the new year, reconnect with families and friends from other villages, and select marriage partners. Almost all of the women and girls wear makeup and dress up in their best costumes. Some of the men and boys dress up as well, but that part of the tradition seems to have faded. That is only a simplified outsiders’ explanation of Tsa Hauv Toj, which is the name of this festival that lasts for days and the one that we were lucky enough to find.

young and old

young and old - h


Mohawk guy

One of the main activities of this particular Tsa Hauv Toj is a ball-tossing game called pov pod. We weren’t clear on the rules, other than you must catch and toss the ball with your right hand only. This is a way for young people to socialize and for parents to evaluate potential matches. We talked to one person who said that it was not a very serious game and anyone could play, even if you weren’t in the market for a husband or wife.

Pov Pod lines

Girl in green

ball toss - girl in neon

girl in pink

Tony and Kevin tossing the ball

We also met and enjoyed talking with Peter, a Hmong man who is living in Minneapolis. He had an impressive video equipment setup.


One section of the festival grounds was dedicated to a long row of booths set up with a variety of large vinyl backdrops. Anyone could use them to take photos and there was also a person who was selling digital prints from his portable printer.

tiny girl in photobooth


Girl adjusting hat

Kids playing with a costume

teens in photobooth

Photobooth backdrops

girls crowding the booth

girls in the woods

group photo

sparkly shoes

Kevin showing his group photos

little girl posing

We were the only foreigners there that day, and drew a lot of stares. We also got a lot of photo requests, which we were happy to pose for. It was only fair.

Boys staring

Kevin sharing photos


Alicia with Hmong girl

Jan 2013



Loi Krathong

King and Queen of Thailand honored at parade

November is a great month to be in Thailand. The rainy season is over, the weather is cool(er), the holiday crowds haven’t arrived, and since the rice harvest is over there are festivals to celebrate. After the euphoric lantern release at the Yi Peng festival is the Loi Krathong festival.

Krathongs for sale

Loi means “to float” and krathong means… well, the internet says a lot of different things and we don’t know Thai. But a krathong (“kra-TONG”) is a tiny raft usually made of banana leaves and flowers. You stick a few candles in it, along with some small offerings, set it in the river on the full moon of the 12th month and watch your bad luck float away.

On Loi Krathong, the river is choked with these little creations, parades full of bored-looking young people in glittering costumes crawl through the streets for several nights in a row, the sky is filled what seems to be thousands of glowing jellyfish, and firework enthusiasts (every male under age 30) run amok with zero regard for public safety. It’s glorious.

Pink lanterns on parade

White Elephant on parade

Riverside chaos

We roamed the streets with our Couchsurfing host, Kevin, and some fellow Couchsurfers from Portugal, Holland and China (Kevin has a big house).

More khom loy were launched.

Amber with lantern

Maria's lantern

Thai guy's lantern

We laughed at the small dangers and fled from the larger ones.

Throwing fireworks off the bridge

The street clears for a large firework

Fried bugs were eaten.

Fried crickets and grubs

Amber is concerned about the bugs

Amber is very concerned about the bugs

Amber holds up a bug

Amber's reaction

Ole's grub

Tony's reaction

Strangers’ photos were enhanced by our sneaky and uninvited faces.

Tony prepares photobomb

Sneaky Tony


Best photobomb

Our photos and words don’t quite convey what it really feels like to be there… So we made this video.


Fire in the Sky

On our first night Couchsurfing with Kevin in Chiang Mai, he took us to his favorite annual event: the Yi Peng festival.

The evening was hot and sticky and the thousands of people crammed into the Maejo University grounds inspired a bit of claustrophobia.

The crowd

And then. The monks began to chant.

Smoke at the front of the crowd

And then. The oil lamps staked all over the grounds were lit.

Oil lamp

And then. Everyone held the wax rings wired to the bottom frames of their khom loy to the fire.

Begin to light the lanterns

Lighting the khom loy in front of the Buddha

Girl lighting a lantern



Lanterns filling with hot air

Beginning of the release

AND THEN. A sea of glowing paper lanterns rose, along with our hearts, and for a minute or so, the world was perfect.

Lanterns through the bamboo

Joyful crowd

Sea of lanterns

Lanterns fill the sky

Dec 2012