Spirit worship in Laos

Around 66% of people in Laos practice Theravada Buddhism, however, that has not displaced the much older tradition of spirit worship in Laos, and also in North Eastern Thailand which shares a similar language and culture. Spirit worship has been incorporated into Laos Buddhism and remains widely practiced. Outside of the main ethnic group in Laos, other groups often referred to as ‘hill tribes’ also share similar spirit worship and in a sense these shared beliefs are something that binds all of Laos’s different ethnics groups together.

About Spirit Worship in Laos

Buddhism came to Laos in the 7th Century and became the state religion in the 14th Century. Before that time people in Laos generally believed in various faiths collectively described as Tai Folk Religions. The term ‘Tai’ is reference to ethnic groups that are believed to have migrated from China to what is modern day Thailand and Laos and, according to the state’s version of anthropological history, the main ethnic groups in both countries are descendants of migrating groups of Tai people from China.

Thailand was renamed Thailand in reference to the country being the land of the ‘Tai’ people. In Laos the Lao Lum, or lowlanders, who make up more than half the population are considered to be ‘Tai’. The traditional religion of the Tai people is Satsana Phi, and the ceremonies of Satsana Phi are commonly practiced both in people’s homes in Laos as well as in Buddhist temples despite having no doctrinal relevance to the teachings of the Lord Buddha imported from India.

In Laos spirits are called 'phi'
In Laos spirits are called ‘phi’

Satsana Phi is a complex belief system. The religion has lots of unique gods and deities and ascribes spirits to inanimate objects, to which a series of Hindu deities is added to the mix, along with ancestor worship. Explaining how that all fits together is difficult.

A simpler and easier to understand part of the ancient belief system of the Lao Lum people is the belief in 32 spirits who act as guardians of the people. These spirits have names and characters like the famous nat spirits in Myanmar. During family occasions, such as the celebration of a new birth, ceremonies are performed to call from assistance from these guardian spirits.

Spirit Worship in Every Day Life

The influence of Satsana Phi in Laos, as well as in North east Thailand, can be seen daily. Two of the most common to look out for are:

  • Spirit Houses: In Satsana Phi spirits are believed to be everywhere and in all objects including buildings. Spirits are neither good or bad but mischievous and the building a of a spirit house, to which offerings of drink and food are given daily, stops the spirit of the house misbehaving.
  • Sin Sai: These are the thin white threads you see tied to people’s wrists generally during ceremonies. In Satsana Phi the thread is tied to symbolically bind a guardian spirit to a person.

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