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Sunday 30 Jun 2013
Ban Lad Khammune, Laos

A very moving village experience

I rejoined the rest of the group outside for a cold beer and an introduction to what can only be considered a rite of passage here... Lao-Lao! (I can already hear the shudders of the initiated.) Lao-lao is the local fermented rice wine, or fire whisky might be more accurate. It was served up in a ceramic jar full of rice and topped with sawdust. Our host inserted two thin tubes (suspiciously reminiscent of IV lines) attached to bamboo skewers which he used to drive the ends of the tubes down into the bottom of the jar. We tried the drink by sipping it through these straws. The first tastes were actually not too bad. Strong, certainly, but it had a sweetness that took the edge off a little bit. However, that wasn't the end of it. Lit cracked a bottle of beer and poured it in through the sawdust, then repeated this with a second bottle. Throughout the evening, the jar was topped up with whatever lay at hand. I'm sure I saw at least 5 bottles of beer go in, along with a bottle of neat Lao-lao and who knows what else.

We played a few games of cards before dinner, first amongst ourselves and then included a group of the village men while their wives were helping to prepare the food. We played a simply game of Chase the Ace. (Deal out all the cards leaving out one ace. Everyone throws away their pairs and then takes turns to select a card from their neighbour, hoping to pick the card they need to make a pair and hoping not to be the one who ends up holding the last ace.) It turned out the men knew the game and had great fun abusing each other in Lao when they picked the ace - so much for a poker face! I love the way some things are exactly the same despite the vast differences in culture, language and lifestyle. I was on the far side of the world in a basic village with dirt floors, but I didn't need any translation to understand the expressions and reactions of a group of middle aged rice farmers playing a child's game of cards. Priceless.

The women scolded the men to hurry up and finish their game so they could serve up the dinner. We were treated to a feast of food. Laotian people are embarrassed if they run out of food for their guests, so you'll always be overfed. We did our best to eat everything but couldn't come close. Dinner consisted of a vegetable broth, sticky rice, steamed shredded bamboo and a delicious chicken, potato and carrot curry made with the coconut cream from our coconut haul earlier in the day.

After dinner, we were invited to be the guests of honour at a very traditional Basi ceremony. All the village elders were present, along with probably thirty or forty others, and it was led by one of the elders who had spent much of his life as a monk. They had created a beautiful shrine-like display of flowers, food, bamboo sticks covered with long cotton strings and the ever-present insence sticks. This was placed on a tray in the centre of the room. We had to sit on the floor and touch one hand to the tray while holding the other hand to our foreheads, palm sideways as if in prayer. All around us, the rest of the attendees leaned forwards to touch our elbows with one hand and so on out, so that the whole room was connected. The monk elder also touched the tray and chanted for several minutes in a beautiful melodious voice.
After that, the sticks of cotton were removed and distributed among the village elders. They then moved among us and each one of them tied a cotton string around each of our wrists while chanting a short blessing. This act is meant to convey good luck and keep the wearer safe from harm. After tying the string, they then brushed their hands over the top to brush away any evil spirits. I was expecting three strings from what Mike had said beforehand, but they kept coming. It was truly overwhelming to have so many people crowding around me and covering me in good feelings. I couldn't keep the smile off my face as I thanked each person and had to laugh as I crossed my arms over so they could reach the opposite wrist. I have no idea what was actually said. I'm not religious, nor would I even describe myself as a particularly spiritual person, but I found this ceremony very touching. The warmth and love in the room was almost a physical sensation. I didn't even know the names of the people in the room, yet these elderly people had all crawled around on their knees to reach each of us - all we could do was sit there and try and move our arms in the right direction to help - until I had 28 strings on each wrist and the feeling that they had personally invested something in keeping us safe.
We then seated ourselves around the tray again and adopted the same pose as before, again connected with the whole room, for another melodious blessing from the monk. We were given a small plate of food including a boiled egg, a cake, a coconut rice snack and a banana. Unfortunately we were so stuffed from dinner we couldn't manage to eat it, so the kids peering in the open windows were happy to help. Lastly we were given two shots of Lao-lao. Even this couldn't shake the good feeling and I spent the rest of the evening running my hands across the cotton strings.

We played more cards and drank more Lao-lao and chatted to the villagers. We were told you can't refuse a drink if your host offers it and that Lao-lao always has to be drunk in even numbered doses. After 4 shots I managed to avoid any more, but Kye was so overwhelmed by the Basi ceremony that he took drinking with his hosts very seriously... with the predictable result. The villagers must be used to drinking poor Westerners under the table by now. They certainly seemed unaffected the next morning while the rest of us felt somewhat jaded as we thanked our hosts and headed back down to the boat.  Part of the ceremony is for the recipient to keep the strings tied on for 3-7 days, or until they wear through by themselves.  At the very least we should keep three on each wrist.  Natalie, Kye and Krysia barely made it 24 hours before cutting them down to three, but I was determined and kept mine on for the full three days.

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