LAOS CUSTOMS AND HABITS
THE BACI CEREMONY IN LAOS
The definition: Baci is briefly a ceremony to celebrate a special event, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, or one of the annual festivals. A mother is given a baci after she has recovered form a birth, the sick are given bacis to facilitate a cure, officials are honored by bacis, and novice monks are wished luck with a baci before entering the temple. The Baci ceremony can take place any day of the week and all year long, preferably before noon or before sunset. The term more commonly used is su kwan, which means calling of the soul.
The concept of Kwan: Kwan is 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. It is an ancient belief in Laos that the human being is a union of 32 organs and that the kwan watch over and protect each one of them. It is of the utmost consequence that as many kwan as possible are kept together in the body at any one time. Since all kwan is often the attributed cause of an illness, the baci ceremony calls the kwan or souls from wherever they may be roaming, back to the body, secures them in place, and thus re-establishes equilibrium.
The Pha Kwan is an arrangement consisting of a dish or bowl, often in silver, from the top of which sprouts a cone or horn made of banana leaves and containing flowers, white cotton or silk threads. The flowers used often have evocative meanings and symbols, such as dok huck (symbol of love), dok sampi (longevity), dok daohuang (cheerfulness/brilliance), etc. The cotton threads are cut at the length long enough to wrap around the adult wrists. These are attached to a bamboo stalk and give the impression of a banner. Around the base of this is the food for the kwan. The food consists usually of hard boiled eggs (symbol of the fetus), fruits and sweets symbolizing the coming together of several parts, in this case the forming of a community (a stalk of bananas, khaotom-boiled sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves), bottle of rice whisky for purification, and boiled whole chicken with head and feet with claws for divination purposes.
The pha kwan is placed on a white cloth in the center of the room, with the maw pawn sitting facing the pha kwan. The person(s) for whom the baci is being held sits directly opposite of him, on the other side of the pha kwan. The maw pawn or mohkwan is a village elder, ideally an ex-monk who will be officiating the ceremony, chanting and calling the kwan.
The maw pawn finishes the invocation, he places the symbolic food into the upturned hand which the recipient has by now extended. The maw pawn then takes the cotton thread from the pha kwan and wraps it around the extended wrist, tying it there. While securing it with a few knots, he chants a shorter version of the invocation strengthening the power of the blessings.
The sharing of a meal: everyone shares a meal as a member of the community after the ceremony. In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth. The white cotton thread is a lasting symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence. The baci threads should be worn for at least three days subsequently and should be untied rather than cut off. Usually it is preferred that they are kept until they fall off by themselves.
The baci ceremony runs deep in the Lao psyche. In different part of the country the ceremony differs slightly in meaning. In general, it is nonetheless an emphasis of the value of life, of social and family bonds, of forgiveness, renewal and homage to heavenly beings.
THE DRESSING IN LAOS
Entering a Wat or a private home, it is customary to remove ones shoes. In Lao homes raised off the ground, the shoes are left at the stairs. In traditional homes, one sits on low seats or cushions on the floor. Men usually sit with their legs crossed or folded to one side, women prefer solely the latter. Upon entering, guests may be served fruit or tea. These gestures of hospitality should not be refused. Since the head is considered the most sacred part of the body and the soles of feet the least, one should not touch a persons head nor use ones foot to point at a person or any object. Moreover, men and women rarely show affection in public. It is also forbidden for a woman to touch a Buddhist monk.
THE LAOS HOME
The unique characteristic of a traditional Lao home has a direct impression on the Lao people and their live hoods that is different from the present mixed architecture of tradition and modernism. A traditional Lao home is built high off the ground with hardwood stilts embedded either into the ground or on stones. Wooden planks are used for flooring. Wood boards or bamboo are used for siding and either grass or shingle can be used for roofing depending on what the home owner can find at the moment.
There are two types of traditional Lao home. Sier and Faed. A Sier home or sometimes called Keuy is more popular than that of a Faed home, considering that only a family of good statues can build one. A Fade home is basically two structures built side by side which uses more materials than a Sier and is less popular. A Sire or sometimes called Keuy home is a single structure with an addition of a terrace that has a lower roof and floor than the main structure. The terrace is used to have meals and greet visitors. There is also a wooden bench on the terrace, which is used for resting. Next to the terrace is the kitchen and Sahn used for washing and bathing. Sometimes the kitchen is built connected to the house separately with the Sahn approximately one third by size of the kitchen.
A Faed home consist of two connecting structures, one structure includes the bedroom and the other for greeting guest. The bedroom in both a Faed and Sier home are divided for the parent, male and female siblings and a room called Hong Beung. This room is used as a guest room ; besides guest only the male member of the family may sleep here because it is also used as a worshipping room where family Buddha images are kept. The home mentioned above are previously difficult to find now that a combination of more modernism than tradition are used in building new homes.