Touched by the kindness of strangers in the deeply spiritual nation of Laos
THE Lao lunar-solar calendar is full of Buddhist observances, rituals, public holidays and festivals. Some are riotous (a rocket festival, for example; or the one that licenses revellers to throw buckets of water at each other), others are sombre (when bones are exhumed and cremated) or repetitive (two annual new-year festivals; two water festivals; sundry auspicious moments for monk ordination).
The little landlocked nation’s most defining ritual, however, occurs more frequently than any other observance and regardless of season or celestial position. The baci (bah-see) ceremony is a unique national custom and, like much about this anachronistic communistBuddhist country, its simplicity and appeal is deeply moving.
Whenever a child is born, a wedding celebrated, a death mourned, a venture launched, a home warmed, an illness descends or lifts, at departures and arrivals — in fact, every significant transition in life — people gather to bestow baci blessings.
Even foreign travellers, like me, can be blessed by the kindness of strangers. I’m introduced to the baci in the honeypot town of Luang Prabang, in the rugged northern Lao mountains. Regarded as the best-preserved town in Southeast Asia, its World Heritagelisted streetscape combines mouldy French colonial-era mansions, stay-allday cafes and wine bars, traditional Lao wooden homes, boutique hotels and more than 30 gilded wats with winged roofs sweeping almost to the ground.
Though the baci is an animist tradition predating Buddhism’s arrival here, it’s embraced by everyone in this nation of devout Buddhists. Hotels arrange ceremonies for guests, and my blessing takes place at the chic OrientExpress property in Luang Prabang, La Residence Phou Vao, poolside at dusk.
I kneel with a gathering of 10 villagers draped in white scarves, three generations of men and women around a low table bearing a spaceship- shaped arrangement of marigolds, known as the pha kuan, a silver bowl of incense, finger bananas, a few kip banknotes and little Lao sweets and rice cakes.
The mor phon, the village elder who leads the ceremony, begins chanting, calling back the wandering kwan, or spirits, of those present. It’s believed there are 32 kwan in a person’s soul, each protecting an organ, and a baci blessing has the twofold aim of lassoing the oft-absent kwan to those who need all their spiritual strength and being a heartfelt expression of communal solidarity and goodwill.
When the spirits have been summoned, the mor phon ties a thick white cotton thread, a saisin, around my left wrist, then my right, symbolically securing my restored kwan. I raise each wrist to chest height, a sign of respect, and one by one the villagers kneel before me tying strings, gently rubbing the pulse point on each of my wrists as they go, murmuring words of good luck and something that roughly translates as ‘‘in with the good spirits, out with the bad’’. We smile at each other and hold clasped hands over our hearts. When all the threads are tied, the mor phon pours a shot glass of lao-lao, the ubiquitous rice whisky, and the gathering watches and smiles as I sip and nibble on the ceremonial snacks. I am, indeed, blessed.
It’s said the threads must remain on the wrists for at least three days to ensure the best luck, and must not be cut. My wrists are still swathed in cotton a week later, after I’ve returned home safely (‘‘Looks like a failed attempt at self-harm,’’ one wit suggests). I’m swimming in the ocean one day when the last of them, frayed and greying, floats away. Helen Anderson was a guest of La Residence Phou Vao.
The mor phon, the village elder, calls back the wandering spirits