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Tradition warms the heart and soul

It is hard not to feel gratitude daily in Laos’ Luang Prabang, as Kate Webster discovers through age-old traditions in this heritage rich city.

Laos is a country that remains lost in time, retraining many traditions that seem to have disappeared in a frenzy of development elsewhere in the region. Here you will discover a country untainted by mass tourism, an Asia in slow motion.

The magical Luang Prabang is a prime example of this, as hundreds of saffron-robed monks glide through the streets every morning in a call to alms, one of the region’s iconic images.

A tradition that dates back to the 14th century, the alms giving ceremony takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. Buddhist monks depart from temples in this UNESCO-listed town to gather their daily meal from locals whom wake early to prepare the food and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts.

Travellers to the area can also take part in the ceremony. I sat patiently waiting with my basket, contemplating what this simple meal of sticky rice meant to the monks and as they lined up to collect their share, I felt daily gratitude for being invited to take part in this age-old tradition.

In a heart-warming turn of events, I also bore witness to monks returning the favour and sharing some of their alms with children on the street so that they can take food back to their family.

This warming of the soul through simple gestures carries over to another ceremony specific to Laos, the Baci Ceremony. Practiced for hundreds of years, the ceremony involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists during a prayer saying or well-wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. The term commonly used for this is “Sou Khuan” which means “spirit enhancing or spirit calling”.

The people of Lao believe that a human being is a union of thirty-two organs, each has a spirit or Khuan (Lao word for spirit) to protect them. I am told that these spirits often wander outside the body causing unbalance of the soul.

I sat on a mat in the fitting surrounds of the Sofitel Luang Prabang. Originally built as a French Governor’s residence in 1900s, the property is located in a quiet residential quarter and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Next to me is a colourful delight, a handmade marigold pyramid centrepiece known as a Pha Khuan. In front of me is an elderly man known as the Mor Phon (wisher or master of ceremony usually a respected and knowledgeable person in the community) and a number of older women. To begin, I am handed a glass shot of Lao whisky and the prayers are said.

This was shortly followed by the tying of white string around my wrist by the older women as they murmured words of prayer to invite good wishes. This can also include quoting from Lao poetry and proverbs. The tying of the white string represents tying of the 32 spirits to the body putting them back in harmony as well as bringing good luck and prosperity.

With my wristed adorned with white strings, we all gather around the Pha Khuan and lay our hands palms down on its edge as the prayer continues with “Hai Kuard Nnee, Dee Kuard Kao” meaning “bad is swept out, good is wept in”.

The white strings tied around my wrists remained weeks after the ceremony as I was told to wait until they fall off as cutting the strings means the good wishes might be severed. I was too believing to remove them, and they were a warming reminder of my time in the lovely Laos.