As I near the end of my time here I feel compelled to write something about the unique Lao culture, customs, people, and how all of this relates to conserving wildlife.
I have been impressed by the generosity, kindness, and gentleness of Lao people. The religion in Laos is primarily Buddhist with hints of animism, especially in the villages. The many holidays and customs in Laos relate to the strong Buddhist tradition.
This week is the beginning of Lao New Year (Pii Mai) commencing several days of baci ceremonies, drinking whiskey and Beer Lao, dancing, karaoke, and pouring water on each other which ultimately turns to spraying everyone with a hose and dumping buckets of melted ice on unsuspecting friends. The Lao know how to have a great party. Considering how shy they can be, they become very uninhibited during Lao New Year. Even the quietest person will be singing and dancing and pouring water down your back!
All Lao New Year parties start off with a baci ceremony. Baci is an animist ritual used to celebrate important events and occasions, like births and marriages, entering the monkhood, departing, returning, beginning a new year, and welcoming or saying goodbye. An ancient belief in Laos is that the human being is a union of 32 organs and that each has a “kwan” spirit that watches over and protects 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 a missing kwan is often attributed to 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 ceremony is performed by a senior person of the community who has been a Buddhist monk at some stage and involves a long song like speech where flower petals are put into a glass of water and candles are lit. All of the attendees are holding onto a piece of white string which is attached to an elaborate flower tray (which is also filled with bags of chips and hard boiled eggs). At the end of the ceremony everyone takes white string off of the tray and goes around to each person in the room to tie them around their wrist. So you are supposed to hold a glass of beer, a hard-boiled egg or two, and a bag of chips in your hand. Then each person comes around and swipes the string over your wrist and says things like “good things come to you”, “success this year”, “healthy and strong”. Then they tie the string around your wrist. So by the end of the ceremony you will have about 20 white string bracelets and you will feel very lucky!
Animism is the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings and this is a strong sentiment in the rural villages of Laos. For wildlife conservation this is a very positive thing. Gibbons especially are considered spirits or even human ancestors. Surveys by WCS have indicated that in the villages with strong animistic beliefs, gibbon populations are not threatened. The reason why there are still gibbons in the area I have been working is because the village nearby believes the gibbons are spirit ancestors and it would be very bad luck if they were harmed. The village level of protection is wonderful so long as development doesn’t change everything. Unfortunately road and hydro-power development is extremely prevalent in Laos right now and is set to transform the countryside. Traditional animistic beliefs are often lost when people lose their connection to nature.
I was also really lucky to be invited to a Lao wedding. Bounthavy is a friend from WCS. His son got married. The main affairs at the wedding involve drinking whiskey with ice and a lot of Lao dancing.
Sabaidee Pii Mai (Happy Lao New Year)!!