“Lao is medieval; it’s not renaissance. Thailand is renaissance.”
The Prince of Lao - an extraordinary artist and cultural preservationist – asserted in response to my probing questions about the local spirit houses. I could tell he was getting a little frustrated that I continued to compare Lao spirit houses to Thai spirit houses.
“You can’t judge Lao culture by what you see. You must feel.” He added.
And so I did what the Prince told me to do, of course.
During my off hours from teaching qigong at the gorgeous Amantaka resort, I took to viewing spirit houses by bicycle through back street alleyways and river bends, sometimes visiting the same spirit house multiple times, until his wisdom finally broke through my thick Thai lenses. Clue after clue, I realized that I had come to a land where spirit houses may be more authentic to their origins than those in Thailand today.
Most visitors to Laos comment that it is stuck back in time 40 years. Slow to develop, the country has been stunted by war, corruption, abuse of resources and lack of education. Never the less Luang Prabang is a cultural treasure (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It’s rich diversity of ethnic tribes and cultural crossroads have dynamically influenced the local beliefs in the spirit world. As a result Lao spirit houses remain animistic and ancestor based even when they accumulate modern Thai elements. The name the locals call them, saarn phii meaning 'spirit house', reflects the substantial simplicity of their everlasting roots in the spiritual heartland of Indo-China.
In honor of the generous guardian spirits of Laos, I offer this month’s series of photos and for you not just to see, but that you may be transported to feel the spirit of Laos. While you explore the photos you may feel compelled send a wish that this land and her people will continue to be resilient and shine for future generations.
The smile of Lao people is contageous. I came across this girl in a rural neighborhood of Luang Prabang still wearing her school uniform. She enjoyed having her picture taken with her spirit house and even posed for me in a few different positions.
Stay tuned for more spirit houses from Laos in this months series Lao Diaries!