Justine Tyerman has an enlightening experience at a Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, the spiritual capital of Laos.
The ladies clustered around me in a warm, womanly huddle. They held my hands, tied coloured cotton threads around my wrists and murmured blessings as I knelt on the temple floor at the foot of a splendid gold Buddha who smiled down serenely at the happy ceremony below him.
The Baci ceremony
I was one of a small group of Kiwis on an Innovative Travel-Singapore Airlines tour, privileged to be taking part in a special Baci ceremony at the beautiful Wat That Luang temple in Luang Prabang, the spiritual capital of Laos.
One of the most revered traditions in Laos, the ceremony is performed on important occasions such as weddings, births and the Buddhist New Year.
It’s also a way of welcoming friends, family and travellers, and raising the spirits of someone who is unwell, physically or spiritually.
After someone in the family has died, a Baci ceremony is held to enhance the spirits and reinforce the harmony of family members after having been through a sad time.
We watched and listened as a senior monk, kneeling at the foot of Buddha, lit candles and chanted a mantra while several younger monks bowed low and repeated his words.
Then the group of senior local women placed a ‘pha khuan’, a handmade pyramid of marigold flowers surrounded by food treats, in the centre of the room. White threads were tied to stakes inserted in the pyramid and orange threads at the base.
As we gathered around the pha khuan, our hands touching the edges, the words ‘bad is swept out, good is swept in’ were chanted in Lao.
The women then moved among our group, tying the threads around our wrists and offering blessings for happiness, prosperity, safe travels, good luck and good health. They grasped my hands and held them while gazing into my eyes.
The food was then shared out among our group followed by more blessings.
The women had the sweetest faces and seemed to radiate love and peace. I felt as if I had known them forever.
Unable to communicate in words how moved I was by the ceremony and their loving interaction with us, I resorted to the universal language of smiles. One woman in particular sought me out after the ceremony and gave me a hug.
Our guide Vieng explained that Baci or ‘sou khuan’ literally means spirit-enhancing or spirit-calling.
Lao Buddhists believe a human being is made up of 32 organs or entities, each with a spirit or ‘khuan’ (the Lao word for spirit) to protect them.
These spirits often wander outside the body causing imbalance of the soul which might lead to illness. The tying of the threads represents the tying of the 32 spirits to the body, restoring harmony as well as bringing good luck and prosperity.
Vieng said if we wanted to ensure the blessings came true, we should keep the threads around our wrists for at least three days after the Baci.
When it came time to remove the threads, he said they should be untied rather than cut as the good wishes could be severed and your spirits might wander off again.
After the ceremony, the pha khuan is kept for at least three days for the same reason.
Weeks later, looking a bit tatty and worse for wear, the threads were still around my wrist, partly as a reminder of the special magic of the evening and also because they seem to have lived up to the blessings and well-wishes imparted by the lovely Lao ladies.
I felt such a bond with those gentle women. They left an indelible impression on my memory. I felt not only well-blessed but peaceful and enlightened. So often when travelling, it is the unexpected encounters with others that you remember most vividly.
Justine Tyerman travelled with Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years’ experience offering travellers the opportunity to explore historically and culturally unique destinations worldwide that provide a challenge but with the security of a peace-of-mind 24/7 wrap-around service.
Travel Companions’ Club creating new horizons for social travellers: www.travelcompanions.club
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore daily, from Wellington four times weekly, and from Christchurch daily. Singapore Airlines has a code-share agreement with Swiss International Airlines (SWISS).
SilkAir flies from Singapore to Vientiane and Luang Prabang three times weekly.
Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane to Xieng Khuang.
Parasol Blanc, Luang Prabang.