Adventures on the Road in Northern Laos - the third and last part

September 05, 2012  •  1 Comment

Westerners can't really understand the dramatic difference between travel in the West and in the third world countries of SouthEast Asia. Except for Thailand, the infrastructure is weak, roads are terrible and schedules are optimistic. In January of 2007, I left Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos early in the morning on a small local bus headed for Udomxai in central Laos.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

Udomxai is a bus hub of northern Laos and international buses pass through headed for Vietnam and China. Even so the Bus Station is a smallish building with the bus schedule written on a board above the windows and a dusty dirt lot. According to the travel literature, the city is a major center for Chinese industry and doesn't have a great deal of attraction for the casual traveler. Absolutely correct.

The bus ride from Luang Nam Tha was a short one as bus trips in SEA are, only four or five hours, and I had hoped to arrive in time to catch another bus on to a river town called Nong Kiau on the Nam Ou (Ou River)

The bus pulled into Udomxai at noon and we pulled out bags down and headed for the station, me and  five other backpackers I had met in the bus, three from France and two Australians At the ticket window, I asked what time was the bus for Nong Kiau. The ticket lady said '11 o'clock.' In horror, dreading an 11 hour wait, I said, '11 tonight?”

“No” she said, “11 tomorrow.”

We had missed the only bus for that day. There was no way I was going to spend 24 hours in Udomxai and the others felt the same so we went into a huddle, developed a maximum budget and flourished some money at the ticket lady. In no time a neat clean minibus appeared, we dumped out bags inside and we were off on a four hour ride to Nong Kiau. After an hour or so winding down through the foothills we merged onto Route 1 which wound through northern Laos, eventually crossing over to Vietnam near Dien Bien Phu, the site of the famous battle that signaled the end of French colonialism in Cochin China.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

It is my belief that the further one gets from an airport the nicer fellow travelers are. The hard travel tends to make everyone thankful for company and someone to share decisions. The ride to Nong Kiau was terrific. The Australians were loud, friendly and charming and the French were suave, friendly and charming. As an aside, there is no nationality like the French; they can travel rough, live with cold showers and hand done laundry and still come out looking sophisticated, suave and well-dressed.

Nong Kiau is actually two separate towns on either side of the Ou River but the Chinese government built a bridge over the river and this span has united the towns.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

Laos,Nong Kiauw

 There is quite a bit of river traffic and there are several villages upstream that are reachable only by river. The river itself is shallow with many places that are only barely passable, even in the shallow draft boats that ply the river.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

I splurged on a bungalow overlooking the river ($18/night) and spent the next three days walking around the countryside.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

I made a couple of climbs up the vertiginous cliffs that line the valleys to see some of the caves, each time guided by a pair of boys who had adopted me as their personal tourist and were happy with a dollar an afternoon for their services. Coming back down one of the hills, I slipped and scraped off some skin and, much to my astonishment, after they saw my 'wound', they ran off into the undergrowth, came back with some leaves, chewed them into a pulp and slapped it on my scrapes. Honestly, I would have rather had something medicinal from a tube but I didn't want to insult their effort.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

Laos,Nong Kiauw

On the third day, I went over to look around the boat landing and take some pictures and saw this man who looked just the tiny bit more official than anyone else. I said hello, he replied, I asked if he was in charge and he said that he was in charge of tourism for this province. His English was understandable, much better than my Lao, and I asked he would have coffee with me. We sat and talked for a while then he led me off up a side road, showed me his office (where I took the picture below), saw the neighborhood school and soccer field and then came across, truly in the middle of nowhere, the compound pictured below. The sign said 'The Lao American Cooperation Project for Drug Free Ngoy and Viengkhan Districts, Loung Prabang Province.' Translated into English that mean US Drug Enforcement Agency. No black helicopters were visible but no one came out to say hello either.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

Laos,Nong Kiauw

Laos,Nong Kiauw

He had actual work to do and, as I took my leave, he asked if I would come to his house that evening for a baci ceremony. I accepted, got directions and hurried on back to my hotel to find out what baci meant. According to the hostess, the Baci is a ceremony to celebrate a special event, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, or one of the annual festivals. I guess I was the special event. So later that evening, I showed up at his house with a bag full of small gifts.

I was introduced to: his wife, her mother, his mother, his son, his daughter, his daughter's husband, the daughter's husband's mother and two small children. We all sat around a small brass table for the ceremony – and I was the center of attention and the ceremony happened.

I quote from the Lao Heritage Foundation at

The term more commonly used for the baci ceremony is su kwan, which means “calling of the soul”. The baci ceremony runs deep in the Lao psyche. In different part of the country the ceremony differs slightly in meaning. In general, it is nonetheless an emphasis of the value of life, of social and family bonds, of forgiveness, renewal and homage to heavenly beings.


Concept of Kwan:

Kwan are components of the soul, but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”.

It is an ancient belief in Laos that the human being is a union of 32 organs and that the kwan watch over and protect each one of them. It is of the utmost consequence that as many kwan as possible are kept together in the body at any one time. Since all kwan is often the attributed cause of an illness, the baci ceremony calls the kwan or souls from wherever they may be roaming, back to the body, secures them in place, and thus re-establishes equilibrium.

The Baci Cenermony

The pha kwan is an arrangement consisting of a dish or bowl, often in silver, from the top of which sprouts a cone or horn made of banana leaves and containing flowers, white cotton or silk threads. The flowers used often have evocative meanings and symbols, such as dok huck (symbol of love), dok sampi (longevity), dok daohuang (cheerfulness/brilliance), etc. The cotton threads are cut at the length long enough to wrap around the adult wrists. These are attached to a bamboo stalk and give the impression of a banner.

Around the base of this is the food for the kwan. The food consists usually of hard boiled eggs (symbol of the fetus), fruits and sweets symbolizing the coming together of several parts, in this case the forming of a community (a stalk of bananas, khaotom-boiled sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves), bottle of rice whisky for purification, and boiled whole chicken with head and feet with claws for divination purposes.

The pha kwan is placed on a white cloth in the center of the room, with the maw pawn sitting facing the pha kwan. The person(s) for whom the baci is being held sits directly opposite of him, on the other side of the pha kwan. The maw pawn or mohkwan is a village elder, ideally an ex-monk who will be officiating the ceremony, chanting and calling the kwan.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

This task of preparing and setting up the pah kwan or flower trays for the ceremony is often shared by elderly women in the community. Before the ceremony actually begins, the younger people would pay respect to the elders. Everyone touches the pah kwan as the moh pohn chants a Buddhist mantra. The maw pawn calls upon the wandering kwan to return and inhabit the body of the person the ceremony is intended for. When the maw pawn finishes the invocation, he places the symbolic food into the upturned hand which the recipient has by now extended. The maw pawn then takes the cotton thread from the pha kwan and wraps it around the extended wrist, tying it there. While securing it with a few knots, he chants a shorter version of the invocation strengthening the power of the blessings. Once the pook kwan is over, everyone touches the pah kwan again as a way to conclude the ceremony.

Laos,Nong Kiauw

After the ceremony, everyone shares a meal as a member of the community.

In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth. The white cotton thread is a lasting symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence. The baci threads should be worn for at least three days subsequently and should be untied rather than cut off. Usually it is preferred that they are kept until they fall off by themselves.

After the ceremony and the meal, everyone bid me goodby formally and I left to walk back to my hotel. I took a short diversion out onto the bridge.

It was quite dark by them and there were only tiny lights from the few houses along the river bank to light the valley and the light from a moon that lit the bridge. It was cool, almost cold, I was 12,000 miles from home and no one knew my name and I had just been welcomed into the home of a virtual stranger and made a friend.

I kept the cotton strings on my wrists long past the recommended three days and only on returning the the US a few weeks later did I untie them. The strings still hang on the wall where I can see them as I type this.

A Link to Part 1




What a beautifully written, and touching story. I enjoyed all three parts immensely. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
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