Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Slice of the Southeast Asian Underworld and Spirits of Laos (2012)

Back in 2012 I did a quick write up on the supernatural in Laos for the Halloween Haunts blog feature of the Horror Writer Association. The Internet being a persnickety thing from time to time, I'm reproducing that post here for posterity, and also for the convenience of new readers just starting to examine Lao horror, especially if you've recently picked up a copy of my new book DEMONSTRA from Innsmouth Free Press.

“When the water rises, the fish eat the ants; when the water falls, the ants eat the fish.”
- Traditional Lao Proverb

Laos isn’t the first place people think of when it comes to international fear and horror.  But whether your tastes are for the supernatural or otherwise, Laos has many surprises for those willing to look, from secret wars to eerie ghosts and weretigers.

Laos is a country of 6 million people, the size of Great Britain and a little bigger than Minnesota. But from a literary standpoint it is still largely terra incognita. Many readers became familiar with Laos through writers such as Colin Coterill, whose mysteries feature the Lao coroner Dr. Siri, or non-fiction accounts such as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

Once known as the Realm of a Million Elephants, Laos traces its roots over 600 years to the ancient kingdom of Lan Xang. Laos has since gone by many names to many different travelers.

During the 19th and 20th century, “tranquil” Laos was involved in numerous bloody conflicts, including a byzantine Secret War involving a covert CIA army supporting the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and their allies. By the end of the war, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War 2. Countless people drowned in the Mekong River trying to escape reprisals at the end of the war in 1975.

Over 80 different ethnic groups reside in Laos, each with their own cosmological traditions. While many are Buddhist, others practice variations of animism and ancestor worship. In October, while Americans and Europeans celebrate Halloween, the Lao celebrate Awk Phansaa during the full moon. During this time, families observe the custom of lai hua fai, fashioning small boats adorned with candles, incense and offerings to the spirits, setting them adrift down the river.

While many connect Laos most to the Mekong River, the rest of Lao geography lends itself to intriguing stories. Over 70% of the countryside is jungle or mountain. In the aftermath of the US Secret War in Laos, over 30% of the countryside remains contaminated with over 80 million unexploded cluster bombs. Laos is home to the mysterious Plain of Jars, filled with ancient, massive stone urns built by an unknown culture for an unknown purpose. There is also Xieng Khuan, the Spirit City, a bizarre concrete sculpture garden built by a priest-shaman blending Buddhism and Hinduism. One of the most prominent Buddhist stupas, That Dam, is said to be built over a slumbering ancient being who rose up to defend Laos against invaders in 1827.

Among the creatures Lao encounter in traditional folklore are the Nak, known in other traditions as Naga, or more crudely, as dragons, although that would be a very poor understanding of these beings.  Although they are shapeshifters, their most common form is as a mammoth, often with many heads. They’re reputed to dwell in rivers or beneath the earth. They’re associated with magic and water, including the rain and floods, but also with fertility. Some accounts maintain that the Nak are snake deities who converted to Buddhism and now protect the teachings of the Buddha. They are generally regarded as benevolent, but their vengeance is greatly feared. They are depicted most frequently on the balustrades of Wat Lao, (Lao Buddhist temples).

In Laos, the term phi is applied as a catchall term for the hundreds of ghosts who live in the cities and wilderness. A Phi Kasu, for example, is a floating woman’s head with her entrails and viscera dangling below, ambushing victims at night. Other phi include the hungry ghosts of Buddhist tradition, the ghosts of women who die during childbirth, and at least one being whose presence turns chickens inside out and causes pigs to explode. There is no one comprehensive catalog of Lao phi to date.

One book of interest on this subject is Lokapâla: génies, totems et sorciers du Nord Laos, first printed around 1954, by Henri Deydier. This text examined the beliefs and superstitions of Northern Laos, and recorded Deydier’s trip by foot and horse through the jungles.  At the age of 32, Deydier, alas, died in a plane crash in Laos just shortly after publication of this book. Although it was published in French and German, no edition in English has been published.

Man-Tigers, or Lao weretigers show up in the folklore of many of the tribes and minorities found in Southeast Asia. Among the Lao Soung tribes in the mountains of Laos, weretigers are one of the most supernatural concerns over many others. The Akha, Lisu, Hmong and Lahu in particular are on guard against these beings. The Lisu believe the weretigers are capable of possessing others, including family members. This has affected the courtship practices of Lisu youth, who avoid courting people who are from villages where someone had been reputedly possessed by a weretiger. Among many of the cultures in Laos, during funerals, many are concerned about the arrival of weretigers interested in the deceased and their corpse.

With over 400,000 Laotians living in diaspora in the US and around the world, many brought their traditions and beliefs with them.

While much of the 600 year Lao history and culture has focused on transmitting a message of harmony and friendship, like any society, there is a dark undercurrent of stories that have just begun to be learned outside of the borders of Laos.

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