Heart­felt en­coun­ters

Touched by the kind­ness of strangers in the deeply spir­i­tual na­tion of Laos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - HE­LEN AN­DER­SON

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.