Laos White String Bracelets: The Baci Ceremony

Note the white cotton threads

When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are they, and what was the significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures) and depends on time and place….

Full moon Vientiane, Laos

The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and the meaning depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.

But in Laos, threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers [1], or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children with these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific events in a life: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane (we witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time). [2] The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering, missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.

The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. (The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”.) [3] When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.

Foundation stones are honored

The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism. [4] I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Thailand to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.

NOTES: [1] A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered off from the mother during the birth. [2] The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month. [3] Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation. [4] Check out my posts about the Rocket Festival we saw on our first trip to Laos!

P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.

©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to  viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

To learn more about kwan and the Baci ceremony: https://www.laos-guide-999.com/baci-ceremony.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baci

http://www.laoheritagefoundation.org/ceremonies/baci.jsp

https://www.laos-guide-999.com/that-luang-festival.html

 

Rocket Fest (Bun Bang Fai!) – Part 3

This is the third and final installment of my posts on the Bun Bang Fai, the Rocket Fest that takes place to usher in the rainy season all over Laos and parts of Thailand. We literally stumbled into the Bun Bang Fai on our first visit to Laos…

This 3-day festival celebrates the start of the rainy season by shooting rockets off into the heavens. [1]  Teams compete for awards with home made rockets. HOME MADE.

Take a moment to contemplate that fact.

Contestant teams have to tie their home made rockets to shoot off…. from a bamboo tower.

Got a light?

Each team is required to climb the scaffolding, tie and light the rocket themselves. Take another moment and contemplate that fact. While you’re at it, please pray that the rockets head up in the sky and not down into the watching crowds….

Holy crap! Where’d it go???

The bringing in of the rockets is part of the entertainment. The festivities include plenty of face paint, dressing up in women’s clothing and lots of gleeful music.

Oh yeah: and plenty of alcohol. During the festival there’s lots of dancing and singing, bands perform, and the road is lined with make shift stands, set up by people to sell food and goods.

The bamboo scaffold for shooting the rockets was set up a goodly ways away from the crowds (no doubt due to past experience). You need a spot in a clearing with no ground vegetation.

But what a terrific way to mark the change of seasons: throw a village party, give out some prizes (and these were significant: our guide told us a new house and a water buffalo were among the prizes to be awarded), and shoot off some fireworks. Just make sure that they’re home made, by a team of you and your friends.

Bun Bang Fai!

NOTES: [1] The imagery of impregnating the heavens and bringing the rains to fertilize the crops is too wonderful for words. ©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

Rocket Fest (Bun Bang Fai!) – Part 2

Last week I wrote about the Bun Bang Fai. This is another installment of a new feature for this blog: I’m transcribing my entries from an old travel journal. I hauled out the journal I kept then to make sure that my memories match up with the facts. I use a travel diary to record first impressions and get down the details to go over later (like now, years later). As I said with the last one, enjoy, and let me know if this post is something you want to read more of in the future. — Jadi

“13 March. We stumbled into a rocket festival. The guide asked us if we’d like to stop and look around – a large wooden platform had been erected in a clearing so teams from some 30 surrounding villages could shoot off home-made rockets! The three categories were for small, medium and large and a village head scored them for height and at the end of the third day would give out awards, ranging from a house to a water buffalo.

It’s all pre-Buddhist, pre-recorded time: a wish to impregnate the skies so that it begins to rain. Food stands set up all alongside the one road, a band stand with live music and people dancing before it, a big pavillion for sitting and partying with lots of tables and chairs. The village teams cross-dressed and parading around with their rockets, lots of silly play-acting and laughter.

Pretty in Pink, or is that Pretty as Pink? A team carrying in their rocket for the competition

Check out the stylish red outfit

Depending on the region the 3-day festival takes place just before the start of the rainy season. For example, our guide’s home village has their rocket ceremony later, in May. The fest goes on somewhere in Laos from March through May.

We were the only foreigners. People noticed us certainly but other than a very drunken pair of pals who semi-interviewed us in English, no one ogled or jostled or tried to sell us anything.”

Our presence was simply accepted.

They were lovely in every way

NOTES: ©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

Rocket Fest (Bun Bang Fai!) – Part 1

We were in Laos and Vientiane for the first time, and only had a couple of days there. So we booked a car and driver and a guide, and left the city for a day. On the way back, we drove down a road filled with stands selling food and drinks. “It’s a rocket festival,” our guide exclaimed. “Would you like to stop and see it?”

Hell yes, we’d like to stop and see it! A cardinal rule of travel is that when the unexpected beckons, follow your curiosity….

Just one of dozens of stands with mouth-watering smells rising

We got closer and the scene grew busier, and more and more interesting. A platform had been erected and people danced as musicians played.

What really drew our interest were the large numbers of men in dresses and skirts, wearing make-up. It was still the afternoon, and most of them were already hammered.

These two were students, and asked permission to practise their English with me. I said yes of course

We’d stumbled into a Bun Bang Fai. The title breaks down this way:

  • Bun (Lao: wikt:ບຸນ) merit (Buddhism) is from Pali Puñña merit, meritorious action, virtue, and Sanskrit पुण्य puṇya virtuous or meritorious act, good or virtuous works.
  • Bang (Lao: wikt:ບັ້ງ) (alternative spelling bong บ้อง,) is a cutting, specifically of bamboo.
  • Fai (Lao: ໄຟ), is Fire (classical element). [1]

The Bun Bang Fai is a 3-day traditional festival that takes place just before the rainy season throughout Laos and eastern Thailand (the Isan Thai). The highlight is on the final day – the day we stumbled in – when rockets are shot off. But the rockets have to be home made (“Honey, do you remember where  I put the gunpowder?”), and teams compete to shoot off the best rocket, with prizes given out for beauty of vapor trail, height, and size.

No. I’m not going there.

However, you as the reader can and should, because this is one bawdy fest.

Phallic items, anyone?….

Students had dressed up as reporters and ran around the grounds ‘interviewing’ the crowd. They were interrupted by a group of women parading by, repeating a phrase over and over in loud voices. Our guide grinned as he translated. “They’re saying, ‘Ladies rocket! Ladies’ rocket!'” he told us. Since the rocket competitors are usually men, they’d built their own rocket and were carrying it in to be registered.

“Ladies’ rocket!!!”

Once their rocket is registered,  the  teams have to climb a scaffolding to tie the rocket on, and shoot it off themselves. Alcohol, crowds, and home made rockets… what could possibly go wrong?

See the bamboo structure at the back of the photo? Rockets will be flying from here very soon…

I’ll post Part 2 next week.

NOTES: [1] wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_Festival ©Jadi Campbell 2018. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s photos and pics from our trips go to viewpics.de.

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.