The Baci (Bai si) Ceremony

This is an indigenous Southeast Asian ritual, performed predominantly in Thailand and Laos, celebrated on any occasion deemed suitable e.g. both for welcoming guests and wishing them well on their departure, or as a component of the marriage ceremony, or to bless a new born baby, to conduct a housewarming, to recover from an illness, celebrate a birthday, or at the start or conclusion of a major journey, and even to celebrate the ordination of someone about to become a monk. The main purpose is the binding of the personal spirits to the person, and is also a means of expressing goodwill and good luck to others. The ceremony is also known as Sukwan, or Hetkwan. Su-kwan may be interpreted as "the invitation of the kwan" or "the calling of the kwan." The kwan are 32 spirits believed to watch over the human body's 32 organs, and are considered to constitute a person's spiritual essence.

Throughout a person's life, the kwan wander, sometimes going very far from the person's body. From time to time, especially when someone is sick, it is important to call back these spirits - so they may help the person in their current need. This is a good example of how original beliefs, probably originating from the native Austro-Asiatic inhabitants (Lao Toong), have fused with Buddhism. In order to qualify as a Buddhist monk, one condition the candidate must meet is the thirty-two physical criteria of health, which correspond to the 32 kwan. In fact, the baci, in one form or another, is a ritual practiced across ethnic divisions to make it the most prolific cultural form in Lao PDR, (as well as Thailand, Cambodia, and parts of Vietnam) and accordingly this page is entirely devoted to describing it.

A respected person, usually an older man who has been a monk, assumes the role of the Maw Pawn and leads the ceremony. The main item required is the the pha kwan, the centerpiece, a metal bowl piled high with cones of banana leaves and flanked with marigold flowers, white string, candles, and incense. Around the base there is a variety of food and drink - rice cakes, sweet pastries, boiled chicken, liquor, eggs and sticky rice. Eggs and rice are the most symbolic of these, representing fertility and prosperity. The participants gather in a circle around the pha kwan which sits on a low circular table, and those closest have one hand touching this table. Those farther away who cannot touch the center table, touch the person in front of them - to capture the flow of good energy and show a state of togetherness.

The Maw Pawn calls on the spirits to cease wandering and return to the bodies of those present. He then asks the kwan to bring well-being and happiness and to share in the feast that will follow. Lighting the candles, he joins his hands in prayer and addresses the "spirits" in Pali, chanting for about ten minutes.

Once this part is over, if there is a guest of honor, the person being honored has some symbolic food placed in the hand, while white cotton strings (sai sin) are tied round his or her wrists, to the accompaniment of further benedictions. For maximum effect, these strings must have three knots in them. Everyone bows their heads, their hands palm together in the traditional prayer position. The Maw Pawn will take a few pieces of string from the centerpiece, and rub the person's wrist, back and forth - the first motion, toward the wrist, is done to bring good things to the person. The second, away from the wrist, is to remove all bad things from the person. He then ties a white string around one wrist and then the other. All the while chanting more blessings. The strings tied to the wrists bind the spirits to the person.

Do what I do, Kampeng told her.
Luckily, he was first. He raised his left hand as if to shield his cheek, and extended his right, into which the ikoon placed an egg. Then the ikoon took one of the white strings and tied it around Kampeng's wrist, after which he did something that looked like he was rubbing it into his skin. Other people were touching Kampeng while this was happening. When it was Dorothy's turn, she could feel a multitude of hands on her, and looked around to see everyone was touching each other, all connected to her. It all seemed so mystical. She looked at the white cotton string around her wrist. It was just an ordinary piece of string, and she now understood the strings she had first noticed around Kampeng's wrist, and around the wrists of the bridal couple at the wedding ceremony. Like many of the things that Laotians treasure, the little thin string was moving in its simple, unaffected charm.

From the novel "The Plain of Jars"

After this, all the participants, who have been sitting round the pa kwan, are allowed to tie more strings around his or her wrists, while expressing their own specific good wishes; and are also permitted to tie strings around each other's wrists, helping each other bind their souls, and wishing each other well.

The strings must remain on the wrists for at least three days and after that, if one wants to remove them, they must not be cut, but somehow slipped off. Many people wear them until, frayed and worn, they fall off on their own. This part of the ceremony, until the end, may be accompanied by music and dance.

The baci is a longstanding Lao tradition. After the revolution of 1975, the communist regime attempted to suppress ceremonies such as these, as well as Buddhist festivals, but the attempt failed, for even the Lao revolutionary leader, Khaysone Pomvihan himself, consulted with monks, maintained a shrine, and prayed to his departed parents.