The favorite food of the Lao guardian spirits is definitely khao niaw, or sticky rice. Look closely and you will find it stuck everywhere around Luang Prabang: tucked in the walls, stuffed inside a dragon’s mouth and piled up on spirit houses. Like a Where’s Waldo picture, where ever you find sticky rice balls you can bet there are some spiritual beings and a few ghosts enjoying themselves.
On a Lao spirit house, mounds of sticky rice are the most popular food offering. This is not the case in Thailand (except in parts of the Northeast near Lao) which makes sticky rice offerings very particular to Lao culture. In Thailand where supernatural cuisine can range from elaborate curries to omelets and toast, the humble Lao spirits stay true to their roots.
Steamed glutinous rice is a staple of the Laotian diet and is used to dip into soups, curries and spicy pastes. The nature of sticky rice is just that; “it sticks together” like a good community should. The people use this gluey-ness to pile balls of it on spirit houses into mounds that form piles, mountains and pyramids, auspicious symbols of ‘growth’ and ‘reaching to heaven’. But more than just a symbol and sustenance, rice also has connections to the spirit realm; in Southeast Asia, rice has a soul. This soul is the soul of vitality, the soul of the land and the soul of Mother Rice herself. In such a simple offering the multidimensional soul of Lao reveals itself as one soul offered to another.
Obviously spirits can't eat rice like we do. It’s not the physical offering they consume, it's the intention and the act of making the offering that they can feel. This is the Lao version of the movie the Secret, the law of attraction minus the new age overtones. When it comes to supernatural negotiation, like moving through a majestic and foggy realm there is an element of the unknown. This mystery of life is to be honored and also to be feared. Food, especially rice, is life and it is also currency. The Lao are not necessarily negotiating deals just to win the lottery or to attract abundance. It is also an existential negotiation; a kind of placating and honor in hopes that the spirits will not interfere in the unfolding play of the human realm. Each offering of rice is an effort to maintain balance and harmony between the seen and the unseen, between humans and nature. So the next time you eat sticky rice at your local Thai or Lao restaurant you may take a moment and reflect upon this while you chew: that delicious gooey delight you are eating has a lot of potential for a little ball of rice.
A naga statue comes with sticky rice offerings in the mouth A plate offered to a spirit house of rice balls
A simple spirit alter with only a mountain of sticky rice offerings
Sticky rice offerings on local spirit houses