An old man sits cross-legged on the living room floor adjusting his ankle-length robe. In front of him is a two-foot-tall, Christmas tree-shaped tower made of woven palm leaves and decorated with bright orange marigolds. Several people pile the last of their offerings — boiled eggs, sticky rice, and other food — around its base.
Lengths of white cotton string tied to the top of the tower span out in every direction into the crowded room. Aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends, and neighbors sit on the floor around the centerpiece, the women tucking their legs underneath their sinhs (traditional Lao skirts). Everyone is given a length of string to hold between their palms. In the silence, the old man begins to chant, calling on the spirits, or khuans.
In Laos, luck — along with health, wealth, and happiness — comes from the spirits. A baci, or good luck ceremony, calls them with chanting, while cotton string ties them and the good luck they bring in place.
After all, once you’ve gone to the trouble of getting luck to come to you, you wouldn’t want it to get away.
Baci ceremonies are unique to Laos — a practice several thousand years old, the baci tradition predates both Buddhism and Hinduism. Lao people hold a baci to collect good fortune and celebrate life events, such as a wedding or a new baby. Baci ceremonies honor important visitors, gather luck for someone starting a new job, and give a sick person strength to get well again. A funeral baci fortifies a family’s luck for the future.
At the center of every baci ceremony is the pha khuan, a delicate pyramid-like tower made of green palm leaves decorated with orange marigolds. Attendees gather around the pha khuan while a mor phon (an elderly gentleman, usually a former Buddhist monk) chants to the spirits.
The body’s 32 spirits ensure harmony and luck when they’re in their proper place. But khuans have a tendency to wander, which is why you need a baci to call them back. After the khuans are called, tying a baci string around your wrist keeps them (and your luck) from leaving anytime soon.
Good luck for all
The women around the pha khuan chat and laugh as they build the conical, tree-like tower, attaching stiff, woven palm leaves to its wide base and peaked top. Some decorate the pha khuan with marigolds while others fold money into small triangles to attach to the tower. Shrieking children chase each other around the house. The elders scold them with a smile, reminding them not to ruin their good clothes before the baci begins.
The pha khuan is finished and the room buzzes with noisy excitement. White cotton strings hang down from the top of the tower and at its base is a pile of food. In addition to the boiled eggs and sticky rice, fruit, crackers, cookies, whiskey, beer, and a whole boiled chicken make up the offering.
The elderly mor phon eases into his place on the floor in front of the pha khuan. The mood calms and everyone gathers around, seating themselves on the floor. The white strings radiate out from the centerpiece like a web. The host lights the candles at the top of the pha khuan and silence settles over the room. The elder begins his chant, summoning the khuans.
After 30 minutes to an hour, the chanting ends along with the solemn mood and then a handful of rice is thrown through the air. Children squeal with glee as the grains rain down, symbolizing the luck and good fortune that’s arrived along with the khuans.
To keep the luck from drifting away, the next step is to tie the khuans in place. The boisterous atmosphere resumes as attendees take the strings from the pha khuan and cut them into pieces about eight inches long. Soon everyone has a fistful of baci strings, ready to become baci bracelets.
Tying one on
Guests mill about the room tying baci strings on each others’ wrists while bestowing wishes for good fortune. At this point, the food under the pha khuan is up for grabs. Children crack the boiled eggs and tear open packaged snacks. Glasses of beer and whiskey fuel animated conversation.
Even the boiled chicken is passed around, people tearing off pieces of meat with their hands and passing the plate holding the carcass to the next person. The offering is thoroughly picked over — guests crack cartilage, separate bones, and scrape off hidden pockets of meat with their fingernails.
When the baci strings are all tied to wrists and nothing edible remains of the boiled chicken, the good luck ceremony comes to an end. Festivities continue with more eating and drinking, Lao dancing, and karaoke.
An ancient Lao tradition, a baci ceremony is held to gather luck for all sorts of life milestones and special occasions. The ritual is especially popular during the country’s most important holiday, Lao New Year, which takes place in mid-April.
Tourists visiting during Laos New Year may be invited to a baci through their accommodation or by a Lao friend. Visitors should be sure to dress conservatively by covering their shoulders and legs (women should wear a sinh if they have one), be respectful, and bring a small gift of money to give to the host. And by all means, dig into the chicken.