Tiered roof of Wat Mai

From Buddist Lent to an animist Baci ceremony

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. The town boasts a copious number of old colonial buildings many of which have balconies and brightly painted shutters adorning them.

Buddha inside Wat Aham
Buddha inside Wat Aham

There is an abundance of intricately decorated and gilded temples with one on almost every street corner. Some portray paintings of Buddha and his teachings on their entrance and inside walls whilst others are plain. Their affluence varies, and I have enjoyed exploring the different ones when I can find them open! This has proved challenging. In this season, apart from those such as Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai and Wat Visoun for which you have to pay an entry fee, the others only seem to be open when the monks are meditating.

The central city is on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is bisected at a crossroads, on one side of which are the tourist shops and restaurants and on the other the quieter area where the ex-pats frequent the cafes. At the end of the peninsula is Wat Xieng Thong with its roof enhanced with bright emerald. My guest house is located on the Mekong at the quiet end. There is one other road, Middle Road, that runs between the Main Street and the Mekong. During early morning alms giving, or Sai Bat, the monks and novices walk in silence from Wat Xieng Thong, along Main Street and returning on Middle Road. There are notices at all the temples advising tourists how to behave at alms giving. Unfortunately, the advice is not always heeded.

With so many temples, it is common to see groups of monks and novices meandering through the streets and their bright orange robes hanging out to dry next to their dormitories. The Monk school is near The Little House and the novices often walk past in two’s and three’s, many holding umbrellas aloft to shade them from the sun. This is essential after they have shaved their heads at Full Moon and Half Moon. I have also noticed them at the stalls purchasing drinks and sweets. I don’t suppose Coke is on the menu in the monasteries! One day when I was walking back from The Little House, I passed a single file of novices, carrying swag bags over their shoulders, trailing behind a monk. Someone told me they may have been going for Vipassana “in the woods” which they do for the whole of Lent, taking minimal possessions.

Ladies on the way to the temple
Ladies on the way to the temple

Earlier this week, I had observed, from my balcony, more people than usual dressed in their temple clothes, clutching silver or gold containers full of offerings (as I discovered.) What was happening? It was the start of Buddhist Lent which lasts for three months. The dress code for the temples is no bare shoulders and knees covered. I wear sleeveless dresses in the heat so am always conscious of my clothes when visiting them. Ladies wear traditional sinhs which come in a multitude of patterns and various degrees of quality. They always wear blouses, often white or cream. Both men and women wear a sash over their shoulders which must be tied precisely. This is standard dress, not just for temples, but for anybody working for the Government or attending official functions. ‘Falangs’ or foreigners working here who wear the sinhs find them hot and uncomfortable. I have yet to try one although as the girls at The Little House have been learning to make one this week, I may attempt to sew one myself.

I attended prayers for a short time at my nearest temple, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang. Everyone sits on the floor, which can be uncomfortable after a while! On this occasion, one man was chanting whilst the monks, novices and congregation listened and responded at intervals. I am not a Buddhist, nor do I speak Lao so I was unsure of what was happening. A few minutes after sitting down, an old lady next to me gave me a nudge and with a sharp “madame” demonstrated I should have my hands together in prayer. I obeyed!

Many offerings were placed in front of the monks and statues of Buddha. These included monks’ robes, towels, food and marigold stupas. Large candles appeared. Some of them were still partially wrapped in plastic. I watched in fascination as a man began to light them. How long would it be before the temple caught fire? I was glad I was near the door. I was waiting for a conflagration. He realised just in time the flame was reaching the plastic and removed some whilst waving another piece dangerously close to the flame. All was well though. At the end of each chanting section someone banged a drum and a cymbal which resonated around the temple. It produced a beautiful echo which I loved but it startled everyone each time it sounded.

Inside the temple
Inside the temple

I had plenty of time to observe the costumes of the ladies. Some sinhs are made of silk whilst others are cotton. The temple sashes are traditionally cream but I noted some with beautiful embroidery. The comings and goings during the ceremony amused me. Many phones were in operation, including that of the head monk who spend most of his time adjusting one phone on a selfie stick and taking pictures of the congregation on another. I cannot imagine that happening in an Anglican church!

Making a flower stupa
Making a flower stupa

We took the girls to T.A.E.C. (Traditional Arts and Ethnological Centre) to learn how to make a flower stupa. It gave them a break from arithmetic and sewing! T.A.E.C. conduct workshops in traditional arts and the stupa was for Lent. Many street stalls sell them and ladies squat on small stools on their stalls making them. They twist banana leaves into a cone, secure a band around the base with toothpicks and poke marigold flowers into the gap between the cone and the band. What could be simpler? Sally rated mine sixth out of six, with those made by the girls being judged much neater.

Baci offering table
Baci offering table

Next we made a Khmu taleo. The Khmu, who are animists, hang large ones outside their houses to ward off the ‘pi’ or spirits. They make them by weaving sticks of bamboo together to form a circular shape. It sounded easy. It wasn’t! Once again I found it more difficult than the girls and it reminded me how hard it can be to learn a new skill. I need to remember that when I am teaching them sewing!

We finished the week on a different note. We had a Baci ceremony to bless The Little House and say goodbye to Sally. The girls are all animist and this was an animist ceremony conducted by a shaman. He chanted and made offerings to the spirits after which we tied baci strings around each other’s wrists whilst wishing the other person wealth and happiness. My wrists are now adorned with strings which they consider bad luck to remove before three days have passed. They become very bedraggled in the shower!

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