13 April 2009

Baci Ceremony

Just past dusk after a four hour trek from Savannakhet, five of us sat in the large dining/living room of a traditional Lao teak house. Surrounding us, slowly murmuring protection prayers, were the villagers of Ban That. We all leaned in to gently lay hand on the tiered silver platter laden with fruits, money, eggs and intricately braided bracelets as the dozen Lao adults and their children swayed in incantation. Those whose hands could not reach the offering simply touched the body of someone who could, and we all pulsed together while they blessed us, the visitors. Though the next morning we were to be awake at 5am to give alms of sweets and our clumsily made balls of sticky rice to the Theravada monks on their daily procession, tonight we abandoned Buddha's teachings and focused on Phi. The traditional, millenia old animism has nothing to do with Buddhism – it even contradicts and should offend it – but somehow in Laos they mix like liquids swirling down a drain.

Phi are the 32 friendly spirits that belong to each person's body - like a soul. The spirits like to go off wandering, sometimes because they are scared away by loud noises or bad energy, but mostly just because they are curious and like to play in the forest. People leave treats hanging in trees for their Phi when they are not needed. The Baci ceremony calls all of the Phi back to your body so that you can embark on a journey as a whole person, safely protected by all of your brother spirits.

As the Village Elder called our Phi from the forest, the elderly women approached us one by one and nimbly tied multicoloured string bracelets to our wrists, chanting under their breath as they did so. A small girl watched intently, and then with guidance from her grandma took her turn affixing the bands on Landon and I (she was too shy to touch the boys.) It is her soft, unsure touch that I remember most vividly.

We were presented with a dish containing a candy, a hard boiled egg and a banana, as well as a shot of Lao Lao (fermented rice liquor) to purify our body. Once the foods were eaten and the liquor swallowed the Baci was complete, and jovial sentences spoken in a broken Lao/English/French patois were exchanged. A huge feast of vegetables and fish was laid out in front of us, but no matter how much we ate we could not put a dent in the food - chattering women appeared every few moments to ply us with another ball of rice or scoop of long beans.

Musical instruments appeared, and the open windows slowly filled with local children who had scaled the small fence around the house to catch a glimpse of the five strange farang draped in ceremonial silk scarves, singing and laughing, finishing a final bite or two of sticky rice and picking fish from the bones. Fearing it was rude to offer the staring kids the families food, I waited until everyone in the house was occupied to hold out some candy bars. But it was too late – the children scrambled away when I looked toward them.

Despite the early hour, the entire village started winding down. Five am comes early, and so after a few more folk songs and a rousing off key rendition of “O Canada” we too retired to our gender segregated beds.

We drifted to sleep, filled to the brim with food, rice whiskey, Beer Lao and most importantly - our 32 reunited Phi, fresh from the forest.

(If you want to book this exact trek, or something a little more difficult (up hills, with bikes) just contact the amazingly friendly people at the Savannakhet Tourist Office. For more info about responsible tourism in Laos click here)

1 comment:

Kaw k' Ter said...

So why we use candy bar sticky rice banana in Baci ceremony? Do they have any meaning to use this food instead other food?