We’re staying in a tiny Lao village among the pigs and chickens and water buffalo on the Eastern bank of the mighty Mekong River. Thailand’s identical-looking jungle is lapped by turbid waters on the opposite bank, a short – but treacherous – swim away. From what I could manage to understand from a local guide, Ped, Laos people here believe there are 32 individual parts to the human spirit. When we experience moments of extreme excitement, fear or trauma, some of those spirit parts can detach from us and stay in those places where we experienced it. An ancient concept of a horcrux if you like. This makes us spiritually incomplete. We’re missing something.
After playing football and games with the kids, night falls over dinner and the generator gives up the ghost. Everyone busily sets up candles around the huts so the village elders can invite us to a Baci ceremony to call back our lost spirits. The moon is missing only a sliver of its own self. It will be complete as a full moon tomorrow night. The rest of the sky is a deep, sapphire blue, chinked with facets of the stars. There are lots of candles. The village shaman is chanting to call the wayward spirits. I’ve had so many extreme and profound moments recently that I find it very easy to imagine that my spirit is missing a few important bits. I think of some of those extreme moments of elation, fear, loss and joy.
The flickering lights illuminate a centrepiece of flowers, bamboo sticks, items of spiritual meaning and cotton threads. The atmosphere lulls us all into a feeling of being looked after by the dozens of faces inside the house and many more peering in through the windows. When the shaman is satisfied that the spirit pieces are all present, the village elders all help to tie the spirits back onto us. All the elders form a circle around our outward facing circle and, taking turns, chant as they tie a cotton string, first to the left wrist, then to the right, until our wrists are wrapped in bundles and bundles of white cotton strands and knots. Each one of us gets each of the elder’s individual well wishes, blessings and smiles.
Ped explains that the idea is to keep the cotton stings until they come off by themselves, and by the time the last strands naturally fall away, the spirit will be fully intact again and healed together. Alternatively, if you do want to remove them, we were told we could take them off and leave them by one of the millions of Buddha statues that you might come across in Laos, or tie them to a tree, or release them into a river, or on a mountain, or some other beautiful natural place. You wouldn’t want parts tying your soul back together to end up somewhere unpleasant.
After all the elders tie all the strings and mumble the chants, we all eat morsels of delicious pre-prepared offerings and drink the village rice whisky with our re-united spirits (never an uneven number of shots of rice whiskey – we are also drinking for our spirits, of course, and it would be rude to have just one shot for yourself). We are so full from dinner, but we must feed our souls nonetheless. It is at this point we realize that both the beautiful centre piece of the ceremony as well as all our individual offerings are all newly hand made. Even the individual banana leaf plates, incense and candle holders and flower chains have been freshly made that day by the village. An incredible amount of work and love has gone into our experience this evening, and we don’t even know how we can start to thank the villagers for their kindness.
It’s now been a couple of days since, and we’ve already released a couple of strings ourselves. Some were left in a Buddha cave, set into a cliff at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, overlooking the Y-shape of the two vast rivers and beyond to rice fields and hills studded with water buffalo and working elephants. Ped told us how to pray to the Buddha in the cave like the locals do. Even though we’re not really Buddhists, we follow his instructions. We knelt in that cave, brought hands together and bowed our heads, wishing good wishes on a bunch of people very dear to us, and hoped that we could feel whole again.
We’re not sure if it all worked, our souls still seem like they’re floating around in the ether getting distracted by cats on YouTube and salad. But we did feel quite peaceful in that cave in the cliff face above the river. And the fact that everyone had made such an enormous effort for complete strangers was magical. So even if Buddha is not your bag, I think you’d like the spot, if only for the human good will poured over us all by this little village somewhere on the bank of the Mekong.