We entered the Lao Refugee Centre in East London to find the hall filled with people dressed in embroidered silks and colourful banners festooning the walls. The tables were laid and the phakwan – feast for the soul – stood by the stage on an embroidered white cloth. This was Pimai, the Lao New Year. The phakwan is a central part of the celebration, an elaborate sculptural flower display arranged on a tower of silver bowls placed on a tray containing such treats as: whiskey, eggs, cakes, incense, candles, fruit, biscuits and more. Central to this were rows of traditional white ‘baci’ (pronounced basee) strings hung from sticks around and would later be tied around our wrists to bind the wishes of health or luck.
The baci is more usually called the su-kwan in Laos, an older name meaning the calling of the soul. Baci is a corruption of a Cambodian phrase bha sri meaning ‘the rice of prosperity’ and is the proper term for a ceremony involving royalty or high statesmen.
The Su-kwan has its roots in animist pre-history and means the calling or welcoming of the ‘kwan’. Traditionally, Laotians believe that the body is made up of thirty two ‘parts’ or ‘organs’ and that thirty two kwan protect each one of these parts. The kwan constitute one’s spiritual essence and are part of the body from birth. It is difficult to illustrate exactly what they are, as they are intrinsic to the body and life force, yet separate. These kwan have a wandering nature and are only too glad to abscond from the body without warning, causing illness and distress until they return. They can be led astray by other bad spirits, and must be reminded to come home as often as possible by this ceremony. When someone dies they fly off and join with others to be reincarnated into someone else.
The su-kwani is a ritual binding of the kwan to their owner and is a way of conveying good luck and goodwill to all the others present. It is an extremely warm-hearted ceremony and epitomises the generosity of spirit of the Lao people.
In Laos, the ceremony is conducted by a learned priest who chants all the words from memory. Here is London a respected elder, the president of the Lao Association, Mr Mouongphene, led the ceremony by calling the spirits to cease wandering and return to the body. He asked the kwan to come and share in the feast and bring well being to those gathered. After this everyone joined in the ceremony taking string from the centre and passing them over the hands of their neighbours to flick away bad luck. The action was repeated towards the wrist to bring in good luck, the strings were then tied on to bind the spirits while saying blessings.
“We do this when someone comes to visit, or a member of the family goes away or at a wedding, when someone is sick, at New Year, even as a ‘treat’ for a child who is causing a problem. It’s very affectionate, like a warm welcome,” my friend Khamtoune explained last week, “Like when you open a bottle of champagne to celebrate an old friend who has come to visit.”