Crossing the line

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

We were stuck in Muang Ngoi  for three days.  Our arrival coincided with the Buddhist festival of Boun Makha Bu-sao and celebrations were in full swing. More significantly it coincided with a decision by village elders that Muang Ngoi was being plagued by bad souls or ghosts of which it had to be purged.  The last time this happened was three years ago.

Purging involved tying a string around the perimeter of the village that could not be crossed in either direction until the ghosts had been eliminated.  The string was to go up at 3.00pm on Saturday so we were sure to return from our walk in the paddy fields a good hour before that.  Unfortunately when we got to the village boundary the string had been put up early.

We were told that crossing it would be impossible so began to anticipate a night with one of the local hill tribes.  Then, after some discussion, we were told that it might be possible to pass after all if we were to pay, say, 20,000 KIPS to those guarding it (around £2) by way of a donation to Buddha.  Now this was a little confusing.  The purging wasn’t actually a Buddhist ceremony – although to be fair the local monks were assisting with it – so why were we paying Buddha?  And if we were paying Buddha why couldn’t we take the money directly to the temple? But we paid all the same.  Well you do when you’ve got an AK-47 in your face don’t you?

Buddha obviously deemed our actions acceptable because we were allowed to return to our guesthouse on the understanding that we wouldn’t try to cross the line again.  Sitting on the river bank watching boats attempting to pull into the village later in the day I noticed that Buddha also deemed the loan of a transistor radio acceptable recompense for allowing a family from a neighbouring village to enter Muang Ngoi.  And he was more than happy for those making the weekly Beer Lao delivery to cross the line unchecked.

Hauled up in the village we thought we’d take our guesthouse up on its offer of massage but on enquiring we were told that it wasn’t possible at this time. One of the two masseurs was at the temple, the other drunk.  ‘It’s a strange time’ said our host nodding sagely.  So with little else to do we settled into a daily routine that involved watching the street (no not ‘Corrie’ – more hens than Duckworths I’m afraid) then walking its length to see what was happening at the wat.

On one occasion I witnessed what I think must have been the start of the purging ceremony.  Villagers had brought brooms, buckets and mops to the temple and were cheerfully tying themselves together with the end of the aforementioned string. The village has no electricity supply but an ancient looking generator had been cranked up by the monks to allow for a PA system of sorts to be created.  A voice boomed litanies and instructions to the attendant crowd of villagers. From my viewpoint behind the motor I felt a little like Dorothy when Toto reveals that the wizard is nothing but smoke and mirrors after all.

Still, I was more than a little relieved when we woke the next morning to news that the ghosts were gone. I packed my bags and was off as quickly as my ruby red slippers could carry me.

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