South Laos - 1 Ferry Tales

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by Jurgen, Feb 3, 2011.

  1. Excerpt: The province of Champasak, royal and relaxed, is all about waterways, sunsets and hammocks. From Pakse, down to Cambodia, it hosts the stunning ramifications of the Mekong, sculpting “Four Thousand Islands".

    South Laos Trip

    Part 1 - Ferry tales

    See also a trip report about North Laos (in four parts):

    https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33280-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-1-Crosing-the-border

    https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33379-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-2-The-Road-to-Luang-Prabang

    https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33573-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-3-Plain-of-Jars

    https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33925-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-4.-Back-to-Nong-Khai

    The complete photo story can be found at :

    http://picasaweb.google.com/campusadvise/SouthLaos1FerryTales#

    Trip maps (see at the end of the post).

    Crossing at Chong Mek

    For the first time, I started my motorcycle trip by boarding a plane. Actually, the story began a week earlier, when I brought my companion to the Maerim post office. She got a “bubble-wrapping” and my farewell: “ I hope to see you in Ubon, in a week's time, and in good shape”.

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    In full biker's attire, I checked in with Thai Airways and walked through security. I had forgotten that “weapons”, useful on the road, like a swiss knife, are not welcomed on board. Fortunately, the compassionate girls at the scanner forwarded my tool to destination.

    Flying to Ubon Ratchasima, on a journey that friends would drive in one motorcycle leap, seems heretic. But for me, bypassing a two days highway trip, with shower bonuses, was worth a trial. It would also give me more time to amble around South Laos.

    My travel fantasy, set me back of 3'100 Bath postage for the lady (“bubble” packing is 100 Bath), and another 5'000 Bath for my airline ticket.

    In Ubon, I reserved the “Sri Isan” hotel. I was greeted at the airport by friendly staff who drove me directly to the central post office. My “girl” was waiting there, unharmed. She arrived the same morning, as promised, with one week deadline. The hotel's receptionist, in her “pa sin”, jumped on the rear seat and showed me the way. It was all Thai style, friendly and fun.

    I had no precise itinerary for the following days, but knew that I would travel to Laos and go South. My schedule was a two weeks trip, including the way back to Chiangmai, this time on my own wheels.

    ****

    I woke up to a bleak day, with a sad sky crying down on my morning departure. There was no hope in waiting for better times, so I packed my things waterproof and hit the road toward Laos.

    Route 217 after Ubon, and particularly after Phibun Mangsahan was not at his best. Two of the four lanes were useless and the last sector was totally under renovation, with muddy trails and treacherous levels between old asphalt and soft dirt. My mood was somber as the clouds and, to escape from the permanent rain, my camera never left her dry hiding.

    Chong Mek border crossing is on land, as in Muang Ngeun, were I had crossed into North Laos. These places are relaxed, without bridges or ferry burden.

    It was easy to pass Thai immigration. I had prepared 3 copies of my passport, the bike's green book and the border documents, downloaded from GTR site. The data were not totally completed but were all accepted, without addition. In the custom's booth the officer typed the data in the computer and gave me the printout. Thailand was done!

    On the Lao side, I began with the police booth, got the arrival card and was asked for a visa. As I did in North Laos, I went to the “visa on arrival” counter and was pleased to learn that Swiss nationals could stay two weeks for free. I rushed to the next room, were a lady typed data in a computer, asking for the motorcycle's passport. I made the usual answer stance that there is only a “green book”, and this was confirmed by an “insurance man” sitting next to her. I paid 100 THB and and another 150 THB for two weeks third part coverage. Some stamps, another stop, two hundred meters down the road, for a control and I was all set, happily driving in Laos, at least this is what I thought …

    (for interested “border crosser” see my blog post “walking into Laos”
    https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/entries/8-Walking-into-Laos

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    Gliding straight down, on the right side of the road, I droved to Pakse, through a curtain of mist and rain. Route 16 W is smooth but shared with all sort of cattle and other animals. When I reached the Lao-Nippon Bridge, I parked my bike and went to greet my old friend: the Mekong.

    My stop-over was short lived. As I walked to take pictures, a policemen came hunting me on a “Honda”, making me understand that I had to go back to my bike. Something was probably against the law, no idea what it was.

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    Champasak – Wat Phu


    The light was not appealing, and I took few pictures of Pakse before driving toward Champasak, happy to discover the South face of route 13. The side road leading to the Mekong ferry pier is at Lak 30. There, big and small boats charter people and vehicles to the west side of the river.

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    I checked in to "Anouxa Guest House", a friendly and relaxed place, with simple but comfortable rooms, a delightful view to the river and a terrace restaurant. It reminded me, on a smaller scale, to Nong Khai's "Mut Mee", patronized by a mix of travelers, with different backgrounds and plenty of stories to share.

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    Thirty years ago, Champasak was the seat of royalty. Nowadays the village is just a road, on the rim of the Mekong, with houses and guest houses on both sides. A couple of temples, some colonial buildings, old palaces and all sorts of small shops boarding the street.

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    I kept one day to visit Wat Phu, a Unesco world heritage temple, and the neighborhoods of Champasak. The morning was gray, with an agreeable temperature for an excursion, but dull light for pictures. Despite a flat and colorless illumination, the venerable stones were posing majestically against the dark backdrop of the cliff.

    Morning mist and clouds hanging around the mountain's peak, add mystery and a sense of peace to the site. No comparison with the big brother of Cambodia, but it is not about similarities or differences, but to enjoy the place for itself and for the important piece of history that it embodies.

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    Women where selling artifacts near the worship places and I discussed the theory of relativity, with one of them. We did not quote Einstein, but had common views about happiness. Then she tied a Baci cord around my wrist and, in her prayer, wished that I be reborn in Laos, as her husband. To bring good fortune, the cotton thread has to remain intact for at least three days … months later I still wear it.

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    My intention, when writing trip reports, is to illustrate itineraries for bikers and point to interesting places. Description of Wat Phu's historic importance (it is a pre-Angkorian temple) are found in many “Lonely” travel guides.

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    A trail, toward the South, once linked Wat Phu to Angkor. The first part is a pastoral footpath. It leads to the collapsed shrine of Nang Sida, a girl once scarified to a legendary monster. I walked at the pace of a pilgrim as the intense quietness of the environment was only disturbed by the rhythm of my shoes, brushing the grass. The place feels like it had fallen asleep, many hundred years ago, crumbled and forgotten.

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    The access to Champasak used to be a ferry boat, from the pier located off route 13, at Lak 30. A new link has been cut, down from Paxse, on the west side of the Mekong. It should now be totally asphalted, but during my visit there was still a large proportion of red dirt. I scouted a part of it and the slippery surface, with traffic in both directions, was not yet real fun. Escaping into the mud, when crossing vehicles, was acrobatic on a road bike. I was told that everything should be sealed in a couple of months, for the temple's annual festival, in February. This will provide a speed link and bring more people to Wat Phu, but less might stay overnight in Champasak.

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    In Champask the Mekong is broad and belongs totally to Laos. It is an ideal surface for boating, fishing, cruising or racing in traditional dragon boats.

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    Kong Island

    I woke up with the dawn filtering through the curtains, announcing a sunny day. There was no reason to hurry and I took my time for breakfast, before driving to the pier. It was still early and the first travelers cruised on small boats, the large ferry waiting for consistent loads. My motorcycle was not am interesting freight and I had to wait for quite a while.

    Eventually, the boatman decided to sail, but quickly turned back, when he spotted a truck loaded with passengers. It was a laid back process, nothing speedy. The alternative is to charter a small pirogue, but they leave from a different boat landing.

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    Back on the East side, I glided down route 13, to the next interesting intersection. At “Lak Si-Sip-Pet” ( kilometer 48 ) the worn out route 18A leads to an elephant village and to “Kingfisher Ecolodge” (Ban Khiat Ngong). The territory is part of Xe Pian National protected area and travelers have to pay a fee of 30'000 kip to enter it.

    Going on a retreat, in the natural surrounding of the lodge, and spending days watching herds of water buffaloes or ambulating elephants must be the utmost way to slow down time. As I had other projects, for the immediate future, and jumped back on my bike.

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    Route 13 leads to the border, through an area called the “Esmerald Triangle”, a parallel with the Northern “Golden Triangle”. The boundaries of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand meet in this region and discussions are held for common economic developments.

    Champasak province is the main destination of South Laos trips. Despite obvious national similarities, the geologic and human environment here are very different from the North. There are no important mountain ranges but the watering Mekong is omnipresent, sometimes split in branches covering wide areas (as much as twelve kilometers in Si Phan Don).

    I noted another difference in the layout of villages. As there is enough space available, small hamlets are build offside and linked to main road 13 through unpaved trails. Traffic, however, is still very low and the itinerary often deserted, with the exception of rambling cattle or scattered drying bamboo and rice.

    As I reached the last barrier before crossing into the Khmer kingdom, I hesitated on my itinerary. I was attracted by a loop through Angkor, but ill prepared for this. My information about roads, lodgings and administrative paperwork were all for Laos and I had not yet exploited all the possibilities here. No second thought, I turned back, and headed toward the North.

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    My next visit was for Khong Papeng, to watch the waterfalls. The stream of the Mekong, cascading down a wall of rocks, performs one of the most spectacular show in Asia. The strength of the flow has the power to wash away the spirits usually hanging around people. This makes Thai nationals flock to the place, a highlight of their Laos trip. The white foam of the rapids, punctuated by dark boulders on a blue backdrop has something magic, even if it is not enough to frighten ghosts.

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    Only a couple of the “Four Thousand Islands” have touristic activities. The twins, Don Det and Don Khon are beloved backpacker's destinations. Their motorcycling infrastructures, however, seemed limited. I was still curious to asses the crossing possibilities and went to Nakasang, on the shore of the river. There I found small pirogues prepared to charter my bike to the other side. Despite the attraction to relax in this remote heaven, I left the visit open for another trip and went back to route 13, in direction of Vientiane.

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    The intersection to Hat and to the ferry pier to Don Khong is a couple of kilometers up. It is the south branch of a loop and this “lower” part is totally asphalted whilst the northern part is mostly dirt.

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    Don Khong, one of the four thousand sand banks and islets, is the largest with a length of eighteen kilometers and eight in width. It is a popular destination for Thai travelers and some hotels can be crowded with groups. I choose “Pon's Guest House”, particularly for his Mekong terrace (even a hammock is available). Rooms facing the river are well located, they have air conditioning and TV sets. Unfortunately, not all cubicles have a nice view and access to the balcony. The price, at that moment, was 1000 Kip (400 THB).

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    Night life in Don Khong is limited. Enjoying the twilight from a balcony and admiring the changing colors of the dimming light, over the flowing the water, makes a rewarding end to a biker's day.

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    At five thirty, the sun began to poke over the Mekong, illuminating a couple of stratus on a clear sky. I walked to the morning market, nothing huge, just a small authentic place were locals are gathering to trade goods.

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    After breakfast, on Pon's terrace, I began to circle the island at a appropriate pace, avoiding to frighten villagers and cattle. For once, I just put on a cap, to fully appreciate the scent of fresh cut grass and to enjoy the flaming yellows of the rice fields, contrasting with the azurean sky.

    My first stop was in Muang Saen Nua village, on the West shore. From there small boats sail to remote destinations with no other communication links. In the evening it is a great place to watch the sunset.

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    Further down, Maha Kung, the utmost South point, was my next destination. The last sector is not paved but the road is good till Ban Hang Khong. It offers no particular attraction, just the same boating activities, the slowly flowing Mekong and few people.

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    Like everywhere in Laos, kids came running toward me when I stopped my motorcycle. For the first time, however, they opened their hands in a beggar gesture. It is a maybe a sign of progress, a legacy of tourism.

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    On the way back the road passes again Ban Hang Kong and Ban Huay, near to the vehicle ferry pier.

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    When traveling around Laos, one of my quest is for a shack smaller than his parabolic antenna. I came close to it, but till now, the huts, in all their styles and materials, were still slightly bigger. I often wonder how they get electric power. In such remote places, Thai TV, with his profusion of korean soaps, is the only modern distraction ... now that demography is no longer a national concern.

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    My next destination was the far North, Ban Houa Kong Lem. It is a view point over the Mekong and toward the island of Don San. Ubiquitous boats are part of the landscape, as they are the only mean to connect secluded neighborhoods.

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    In front of a temple, near the river, a group of novices where preparing a cruise to a remote destination, in company of a senior monk. I rejoiced to take colorful pictures of the departing party but, as long as I waited, the motor gave no sign of life. I had plenty of time to chat with the reverent father but, after a while, decided to hit the road again.

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    I had almost spend a day rambling around Don Khong, driving a figure eight loop around the island and just added 63 kilometers to my odometer.

    Trip maps:

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  2. SOUTH LAOS TRIP

    1 Ferry tales

    11 Crossing at Chong Mek
    12 Champasak – Wat Phu
    13 Kong Island

    2. Around the Bolevan

    21 The waterfalls
    22 A Bolevan shortcut
    23 Pakse

    3. Central Laos

    31 Savan and Tha Khek
    32 Route 8 and Tong Lo
    33 Back to Thailand
     
  3. Thanks Jurgen
    Really enjoyed your report and pics. My wife and I were in Si Pan Don a couple of years ago. Brought back good memories.
     
  4. Thank you Jurgen for your beautifully illustrated and scripted report. A most enjoyable and informative read.
     
  5. Great photos & report!
     
  6. A wonderful report...thanks!
    I'd never explored the areas pictured in your report, west of the Mekong.
    But, thanks to your pictorial and descriptions, the area is now on my 'to-do' list!
     
  7. Thank You to all friends who had a look to my report and, in particular, to the one who left a comment. As David_fl is touring South Laos these days, we can expect more pictures and great information very soon :)
     
  8. Many thanks Jurgen for your time and effort in posting this wonderfully illustrated and informative report. Its given me many ideas.
     
  9. Very nice pics and write-up. Thank's for sharing !
     
  10. Jurgen
    Fantastic trip & colours in the photos.
    I'm back from 3 weeks in the south & it is dry down there already.
    The difference in the greenery is incredible, but when I was riding Siphandone / the four thousand islands the Mekong is clear like glass. Unbelievable & that's the advantage you get going in the dry - hot season.
    I will be posting my photos & report once I get my 1 month northern Laos trip finished.
     
  11. Nice shots ... love those colours ...
     
  12. Great TR, just how I like em, heavy on the photos and some really good quality shots too.
     
  13. Jurgen
    Some very nice pix indeed.
    We stayed at Pon's in early Jan - he has a swanky new place around the corner for $35 per night.
    I might have missed it but what month were you riding in?
    Those leaden skies are very dramatic.
     
  14. Thank you friends for reading and posting comments. I am touring Isan these days ... Dark and dry but always loveable.
    I did this South Laos tour in September and still 2 chapters to write. My fingers are very slow in English, I am about one year late in my posts, but then they are synchro again :)
     
  15. This GTR report had the only reference for Nakasang that I could find, but there must be others; & I've been there twice & not mentioned it any of my reports that I can see; so......I read an interesting report on Nakasang, the mainland port for Don Det / the 4000 Islands.
    I hope you don;t mind Jurgen.

    Demonic possession in Laos - is it real, or a pretext for village chiefs to banish troublemakers and nonconformists?

    The animist spirit Phi Pob is believed to cause illness and death, and eat human livers; in a tumbledown Mekong River village, Laotians who’ve stood up to authority live in forced exile, accused of being possessed by the demon

    BY ERIN HALE
    22 JUL 2017

    May Day in the Four Thousand Islands, a riverine archipelago that dots an especially wide stretch of the Mekong. On a public holiday to celebrate workers across the ever-shrinking communist world, a very different sort of ritual is being held here, at the southernmost tip of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

    Villagers gather in a clearing in the woods on the outskirts of Nakasang, a small market town on the banks of the river, bringing with them flowers, candles and eggs. They leave the offerings at the base of a building in which two spirit mediums are working themselves into a trance while dancing to traditional music.

    Through gulps of whiskey and puffs on cigarettes, Xouan and Phouang begin to channel a powerful entity. The two women are about to exorcise an evil spirit from a group of 30 or so villagers waiting on the ground below.

    Mostly middle-aged or elderly, those sitting in the dirt have come from across Laos, and some from neighbouring Cambodia, and they all have one thing in common: having been “possessed” by the fearsome Phi Pob, they have been exiled to Nakasang or one of its two satellite villages, Ban Phiengdy and Ban Mai Xivilay.

    According to Lao tradition, Phi Pob causes illness and death, has a taste for human liver and can wreak havoc in a community once it takes possession of a human host.

    Kheuang Phoueyxana, 65, for example, was blamed for the deaths of three villagers from mysterious “stomach aches” on nearby Khamao Island. The relatives of the deceased concluded Phi Pob must have been responsible and, after the village committee agreed it was in him, Phoueyxana was put on a boat to the mainland the next day.

    “We didn’t want to stay any longer in the village. If we stayed we would have been killed,” says Phoueyxana, although neither he nor his wife, who followed him into banishment, believe he was ever possessed by Phi Pob.

    There are three factors why people nowadays are accused of being Phi Pob: one, influence; two, money; and three, status
    Phanh Vongkhamchanh

    His predicament is not especially unusual in Southeast Asia, where any association with black magic, curses or evil spirits can invite threats or even death, says Ian Baird, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States and an expert in Lao studies.

    “Whether rightly or wrongly, if some person is identified as being one of those vessels for the [Phi Pob] spirit, then they are excommunicated from the village,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s like having somebody there who’s going to eat you and kill your children.

    “They really don’t have much choice but to leave.”

    Belief in Phi Pob, Baird says, goes back hundreds of years and is a “fundamental part of Lao spiritual culture and beliefs”. Lao animist tradition suggests there are hundreds of other phi (spirits) that can help or harm humans. It’s a belief system that has managed to endure despite the arrival of Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism and, finally, communism.

    While Phi Pob and other spirits are used to explain misfortune and death, they serve another purpose. Social troublemakers and nonconformists – anyone who is “different” – can be expelled from a community under this mechanism of cultural tradition, according to anthropologists.

    Phi Pob is regaining its potency in Laos, where the economic reforms of the 1990s have led to growing inequality and social disruption, and authorities have given up trying to clamp down on animist beliefs. In the absence of major political reform, communities continue to rely on this justice system, according to Baird and others.

    These dynamics are played out in Nakasang, an otherwise unremarkable town that is best known to foreign tourists for its bus station and the last ATMs before the backpacker island paradises of Don Det and Don Khone. Headman Phonesavanh Bounnyalad says all of the 1,365 people (247 families) in the village are people who have been accused of being possessed by Phi Pob, or their relatives.

    Phanh Vongkhamchanh, 77, who arrived this year, was a village elder in Champasak province when he began to argue with the local leadership about a new decree banning logging. When many of the other village elders continued to cut down trees, he spoke out against them. Soon, he claims, local authorities began a campaign to denounce him as having been possessed by Phi Pob and he was forced to leave.

    Having held a position of authority, Vongkhamchanh seems better versed in the Phi Pob tradition than the farmers and fishermen who have also been banished to Nakasang.

    “There are three factors why people nowadays are accused of being Phi Pob: one, influence; two, money; and three, status,” he says.

    Vongkhamchanh was forced to leave behind much of his wealth, in the form of rice fields and livestock, and now lives on the charity of Buddhist monks in Phiengdy, a village in which poorer new arrivals live close together, by the side of the dirt roads that wind between rice paddies and farmland.

    Phanh Lounxay, like other monks at the temple in Phiengdy, was himself once accused of being possessed. Monks at his former temple were jealous of his carpentry skills, he claims.

    “They couldn’t find a way to satisfy their jealousy, so they accused me of being a Phi Pob,” the monk says, while chain-smoking alongside Vongkhamchanh beneath a stilted building in the temple complex.

    He found that the accused faced discrimination even after leaving their home villages and were unable to find work outside of Nakasang.

    “If people from the villages go to a hospital, they won’t let them stay. They are afraid of Phi Pob,” says the monk. “The doctors treat the people from the villages but don’t pay very close attention to them.”

    Both men are candid about their experiences; others accused of having been possessed by Phi Pob deny knowing why they were singled out. Vongkhamchanh and Lounxay insist they never studied black magic, a way of allowing in Phi Pob, according to tradition.

    French anthropologist Bernard Hours lived in Nakasang and studied the Phi Pob phenomenon in 1968, as part of his student fieldwork. The town then was much smaller and poorer, caught between the push and pull of the Lao civil war.

    “In the 1960s or 1970s, [the Phi Pob accusation] was already a sanction against villagers who were fighting with some authorities or richer persons [creating] social tensions,” says Hours, over Skype from Paris, where he is an honorary director of research at the Paris Diderot University. “The large majority of Phi Pob are people who have something different [about them]. It could be physical appearance, it could be behaviour, it could be fighting with some more powerful person in the village.”

    A report Hours produced in 1973 detailed the plight of three of the accused: Mèthao Fon, an older woman who had argued with the daughter of a powerful village leader and was blamed when the daughter died; Teng, who came to Nakasang after his son had quarrelled with the son of a leader; and Meun, who was “balanced, gay, and devoid of deviance”. Several of those accused of being possessed, he observed, suffered from epilepsy or untreated mental illness.

    There are hints in French colonial literature that there were other Phi Pob villages in Laos, and Baird believes the tradition has survived in Nakasang because Buddhism arrived late in this part of the world, allowing animist practices to persist into the 1990s.

    Those who come to Nakasang arrive expecting to be “cured” by its spirit mediums.

    Once tarred with the Phi Pob brush, the accused can move to Nakasang only with the permission of those in their home village, and they often arrive bearing handwritten notes, such as the one shown to us by the Phiengdy headman stating that a Mrs Chai, a 48-year-old gardener from Champasak province, had spoken in tongues to two people in her home village and entered their bodies four times in 2015.

    Signed by the village headmen, the elders’ council, the head of village security, a Lao Women’s Union representative, village war veterans and four heads of village units, the letter obliquely asks for her to be “cured”.

    Chai would have been required to pay 500,000 kip (then about HK$460) for a pig sacrifice to the local spirit before being accepted into Nakasang.

    In order to receive help, the accused must agree to adhere to a prescribed programme: they have to publicly admit to being possessed, stay in the Nakasang area for at least three years and participate six times in a cleansing ceremony.

    “The process that people go through is designed to discipline, and thus make them less likely to act against village authority, or go against the broader community,” says Baird, who lived in Nakasang in the 1990s and visited the most recent ceremony, in May. He likens the process to that of a drug treatment centre or reform school.

    Afterwards they are, in theory, free to leave, although many – perhaps up to 90 per cent – choose to stay in a community that hasn’t rejected them.

    If they don’t do it they start to be seriously dangerous because [...] that means they are a real Phi Pob, a really bad person
    Bernard Hours

    Each of the six cleansing rituals broadly follows the structure of the one we witness, which is led by Xouan and Phouang. About 30 of the accused sit in the dirt beneath the slatted floor of Nakasang’s ceremonial building – a small, red, wooden pavilion raised on stilts with a metal sloping roof – as the two mediums enter a trance. Having prayed over buckets of water, they tip the contents through holes in the floor onto those below, marking the start of the ceremony.

    With surprising speed and agility (Phi Pob trying to escape the mediums, perhaps?) the accused take off at a tear through a shallow pond as other villagers fire rifles and a rusty AK-47 to scare off lingering spirits.

    While wading through the pond, they cover themselves with as much mud and cow dung as possible, which, it is believed, will help draw out the evil spirit.

    Once satisfactorily dirty, the accused run several hundred metres across rice fields to the Mekong. They enter the water and swim in small groups along the shoreline.

    Having dashed back, in the town centre they wash, change and split into two groups, one consisting of those who live in Nakasang and Mai Xivilay, the other Phiengdy residents.

    In trying to keep up with the chaotic action, we lose track of the first group and follow the Phiengdy contingent to a small, open-air structure by the side of the Mekong. The ceremony is completed when one of the mediums, still in a trance, ties protective string around a wrist of each of the participants, who then parade publicly around Nakasang.

    Hoping to salvage their reputations, most of those accused are willing to go along with the programme lest they face fresh accusations, says Hours, who witnessed four such ceremonies in the late 1960s.

    “Even if they don’t understand why they are accused, or even if they don’t [study] sorcery, etc, if they are excluded from their previous community, they have to follow the ritual of rehabilitation by cleansing themselves,” he says. “If they don’t do it they start to be seriously dangerous because [...] that means they are a real Phi Pob, a really bad person.”

    The number of those accused of harbouring Phi Pob and being banished is on the rise, say Bounnyalad and former Phiengdy headman Pho Ket Phommasanh, with up to 10 now arriving in Nakasang every year.

    Many arrivals, they say, claim they were targeted over a social conflict, and fall into two groups: nonconformists who argue with the local leadership; and people who cannot be prosecuted under the law even though they have acted against the community, such as cheats and those guilty of domestic abuse.

    In northern Thailand, a culturally similar region and home to many ethnic Lao, the comparable Phi Ka has almost disappeared, according to Shigeharu Tanabe, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Centre for Ethnic Studies and a professor emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan.

    “About 30 or 40 years ago in northern Thailand, near my field site, I came across a village [in which] more than a half [of the residents] were accused as Phi Ka,” Tanabe says. “These accused people included some native villagers, but more were people who had migrated from other villages, where they had been accused.”

    They once served a similar purpose to Nakasang, but this and other Thai cleansing villages have been swept away by the “rapid process of capitalist development”.

    In Laos, by contrast, modernisation has been a driving force behind the resurgence of the Phi Pob phenomenon, according to Baird. Although the absolute poverty rate in Laos has been halved in the past 20 years, according to a 2015 study by the Asian Development Bank, “the rich have benefited even more”, which threatens social cohesion.

    “The onslaught of capitalism has resulted in more unevenness and inequality, and there’s also maybe more corruption, more money floating around, more opportunities,” says Baird.

    Despite growing economic and religious freedom, Laos remains “the world’s most closed political system after North Korea”, according to The Economist magazine, with little room for dissent. It is also at the wrong end of most international indices that measure rule of law and human rights; last year it ranked 123 out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, for example.

    Village councils remain trusted, however, with headmen and other leaders selected through popular vote and meetings held to express community concerns. This may, in part, explain the ongoing appeal of the Phi Pob tradition.

    Nakasang’s treatment of the Phi Pob accused continues to be tolerated by district authorities, who are aware of the unique role it plays in preserving social cohesion, according to the headmen. The village continues to provide a clearly defined system of conflict resolution and rehabilitation in the absence of other solutions.

    And as many who aren’t entirely convinced by religion or superstition do, some involved in the Phi Pob tradition are no doubt hedging their bets.

    Buddhism won’t kill you, but Phi Pob ... well, who knows?


    Source: scmp.com/magazines​
     

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