Friday, 18 March 2011

Baci ceremony

A few weeks ago in work one of my colleagues came up to me saying, "Quick, come to the terrace, it's your baci".  Confused, but curious, I headed out to our huge outdoor meeting area at UNICEF - a 40m long terrace overlooking the mighty Mekong river and Thailand - where a number of people had gathered for a religious ceremony.   Buddhism is an important part of the fabric of Lao society, and whilst I haven't had much opportunity to learn about it yet, the signs and symbols of it permeate the city and its environs.   Every morning at 6.30am I am woken by the low chanting of the young monks as they go around the houses to receive gifts of sticky rice and other foods from more devoted and early-rising neighbours (!), monks of all ages - in their bright orange robes - are instantly visible wherever you go, many houses and shops have small shrines in one corner and on my daily 10 minute commute to work I pass scores of street stalls selling elaborate floral decorations for ceremonies not unlike the one I experienced at work.

The baci (pronounced "bassi") is a ceremony that celebrates a special event, such as a birth in the family, sickness, marriage, departure for travels or in my case, a welcome.  After the prayers that are conducted by the elder, wellwishers gather around to give their blessings to person involved by tying a white string around their wrist.  These symbolic threads are kept on for 3 days, after which they can be removed (you need to unpick them - cutting is bad luck apparently).  At the office I only had about 20 or 30 bracelets, but at larger events like weddings the bride can have her whole arm covered in them.

Our baci was welcoming two newcomers to the office and saying goodbye to four people who were leaving.  It was a pretty emotional time for the people who were going, with all their friends coming up one-by-one to wish them well for the future and pray for their well-being: I'm already dreading this time next year....!

You hold the strings that are attached to the centre; wellwishers gather around and hold the edges of the thread (note the food in the background - baci ceremony always are accompanied by food - I'm not complaining!)
The first thread is tied on to your wrist as they say the blessing; you also are given some symbolic food to hold in your palm - we had chocolate wafers!

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