While travelling in Laos, you’ll probably come across many lowland Lao wearing one or more bracelets of white thread around their wrists. This is a sign that the wearer has recently taken part in a basi, the quintessential Lao ceremony of animist bent, which is performed throughout the year. Also known as sukhuan, the ceremony is supposed to reunite the body’s multiple souls, which are thought to succumb to wanderlust and depart from the body every now and again. Basi ceremonies are held during Lao New Year as well as being an important part of weddings, births and farewell parties.
Before the ceremony can be performed, an auspicious time must be gleaned from an astrologer, and a phakhuan – made from rolled banana leaves and resembling a miniature Christmas tree – must be prepared. The phakhuan is decorated with marigolds and other flowers, and draped with white threads. This arrangement sits in a silver bowl filled with husked rice, which is placed in the centre of a mat laid out on the floor. Participants sit in a circle around the phakhuan and offerings of food and liquor are placed near it. These are used to entice the absent souls to return. An animist priest, known as a maw phawn or “wish-doctor”, presides over the ceremony, inviting the souls to return with a mixture of Pali and Lao chants. The white threads that are draped over the phakhuan are then removed and tied around the wrists of the participants while blessings are invoked. During the basi ceremony performed at Lao New Year, each thread tied around the wrist may be accompanied by a shot of rice liquor, and this sometimes leads to an impromptu lam wong, or “circle dance”, performed by euphoric participants.
A number of trips operating from Luang Prabang include the chance to experience a basi ceremony, though these have always been set up especially for the benefit of tourists; alteratively, you may find yourself invited to partake in one if you travel out to more remote towns and villages, where locals are often keen for foreigners to join the party.