May Day in the Four Thousand Islands, a riverine archipelago that dots an especially wide stretch of the Mekong. On a public holiday to celebrate workers across the ever-shrinking communist world, a very different sort of ritual is being held here, at the southernmost tip of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Villagers gather in a clearing in the woods on the outskirts of Nakasang, a small market town on the banks of the river, bringing with them flowers, candles and eggs. They leave the offerings at the base of a building in which two spirit mediums are working themselves into a trance while dancing to traditional music.
Through gulps of whiskey and puffs on cigarettes, Xouan and Phouang begin to channel a powerful entity. The two women are about to exorcise an evil spirit from a group of 30 or so villagers waiting on the ground below.
Mostly middle-aged or elderly, those sitting in the dirt have come from across Laos, and some from neighbouring Cambodia, and they all have one thing in common: having been “possessed” by the fearsome Phi Pob, they have been exiled to Nakasang or one of its two satellite villages, Ban Phiengdy and Ban Mai Xivilay.
According to Lao tradition, Phi Pob causes illness and death, has a taste for human liver and can wreak havoc in a community once it takes possession of a human host.
Kheuang Phoueyxana, 65, for example, was blamed for the deaths of three villagers from mysterious “stomach aches” on nearby Khamao Island. The relatives of the deceased concluded Phi Pob must have been responsible and, after the village committee agreed it was in him, Phoueyxana was put on a boat to the mainland the next day.
“We didn’t want to stay any longer in the village. If we stayed we would have been killed,” says Phoueyxana, although neither he nor his wife, who followed him into banishment, believe he was ever possessed by Phi Pob.
His predicament is not especially unusual in Southeast Asia, where any association with black magic, curses or evil spirits can invite threats or even death, says Ian Baird, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States and an expert in Lao studies.
“Whether rightly or wrongly, if some person is identified as being one of those vessels for the [Phi Pob] spirit, then they are excommunicated from the village,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s like having somebody there who’s going to eat you and kill your children.
“They really don’t have much choice but to leave.”
Belief in Phi Pob, Baird says, goes back hundreds of years and is a “fundamental part of Lao spiritual culture and beliefs”. Lao animist tradition suggests there are hundreds of other phi (spirits) that can help or harm humans. It’s a belief system that has managed to endure despite the arrival of Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism and, finally, communism.
While Phi Pob and other spirits are used to explain misfortune and death, they serve another purpose. Social troublemakers and nonconformists – anyone who is “different” – can be expelled from a community under this mechanism of cultural tradition, according to anthropologists.
Phi Pob is regaining its potency in Laos, where the economic reforms of the 1990s have led to growing inequality and social disruption, and authorities have given up trying to clamp down on animist beliefs. In the absence of major political reform, communities continue to rely on this justice system, according to Baird and others.
These dynamics are played out in Nakasang, an otherwise unremarkable town that is best known to foreign tourists for its bus station and the last ATMs before the backpacker island paradises of Don Det and Don Khone. Headman Phonesavanh Bounnyalad says all of the 1,365 people (247 families) in the village are people who have been accused of being possessed by Phi Pob, or their relatives.
Phanh Vongkhamchanh, 77, who arrived this year, was a village elder in Champasak province when he began to argue with the local leadership about a new decree banning logging. When many of the other village elders continued to cut down trees, he spoke out against them. Soon, he claims, local authorities began a campaign to denounce him as having been possessed by Phi Pob and he was forced to leave.
Having held a position of authority, Vongkhamchanh seems better versed in the Phi Pob tradition than the farmers and fishermen who have also been banished to Nakasang.
“There are three factors why people nowadays are accused of being Phi Pob: one, influence; two, money; and three, status,” he says.
Vongkhamchanh was forced to leave behind much of his wealth, in the form of rice fields and livestock, and now lives on the charity of Buddhist monks in Phiengdy, a village in which poorer new arrivals live close together, by the side of the dirt roads that wind between rice paddies and farmland.
Phanh Lounxay, like other monks at the temple in Phiengdy, was himself once accused of being possessed. Monks at his former temple were jealous of his carpentry skills, he claims.
“They couldn’t find a way to satisfy their jealousy, so they accused me of being a Phi Pob,” the monk says, while chain-smoking alongside Vongkhamchanh beneath a stilted building in the temple complex.
He found that the accused faced discrimination even after leaving their home villages and were unable to find work outside of Nakasang.
“If people from the villages go to a hospital, they won’t let them stay. They are afraid of Phi Pob,” says the monk. “The doctors treat the people from the villages but don’t pay very close attention to them.”
Both men are candid about their experiences; others accused of having been possessed by Phi Pob deny knowing why they were singled out. Vongkhamchanh and Lounxay insist they never studied black magic, a way of allowing in Phi Pob, according to tradition.
French anthropologist Bernard Hours lived in Nakasang and studied the Phi Pob phenomenon in 1968, as part of his student fieldwork. The town then was much smaller and poorer, caught between the push and pull of the Lao civil war.
“In the 1960s or 1970s, [the Phi Pob accusation] was already a sanction against villagers who were fighting with some authorities or richer persons [creating] social tensions,” says Hours, over Skype from Paris, where he is an honorary director of research at the Paris Diderot University. “The large majority of Phi Pob are people who have something different [about them]. It could be physical appearance, it could be behaviour, it could be fighting with some more powerful person in the village.”
A report Hours produced in 1973 detailed the plight of three of the accused: Mèthao Fon, an older woman who had argued with the daughter of a powerful village leader and was blamed when the daughter died; Teng, who came to Nakasang after his son had quarrelled with the son of a leader; and Meun, who was “balanced, gay, and devoid of deviance”. Several of those accused of being possessed, he observed, suffered from epilepsy or untreated mental illness.
There are hints in French colonial literature that there were other Phi Pob villages in Laos, and Baird believes the tradition has survived in Nakasang because Buddhism arrived late in this part of the world, allowing animist practices to persist into the 1990s.
Those who come to Nakasang arrive expecting to be “cured” by its spirit mediums.
Once tarred with the Phi Pob brush, the accused can move to Nakasang only with the permission of those in their home village, and they often arrive bearing handwritten notes, such as the one shown to us by the Phiengdy headman stating that a Mrs Chai, a 48-year-old gardener from Champasak province, had spoken in tongues to two people in her home village and entered their bodies four times in 2015.
Signed by the village headmen, the elders’ council, the head of village security, a Lao Women’s Union representative, village war veterans and four heads of village units, the letter obliquely asks for her to be “cured”.
Chai would have been required to pay 500,000 kip (then about HK$460) for a pig sacrifice to the local spirit before being accepted into Nakasang.
In order to receive help, the accused must agree to adhere to a prescribed programme: they have to publicly admit to being possessed, stay in the Nakasang area for at least three years and participate six times in a cleansing ceremony.
“The process that people go through is designed to discipline, and thus make them less likely to act against village authority, or go against the broader community,” says Baird, who lived in Nakasang in the 1990s and visited the most recent ceremony, in May. He likens the process to that of a drug treatment centre or reform school.
Afterwards they are, in theory, free to leave, although many – perhaps up to 90 per cent – choose to stay in a community that hasn’t rejected them.
Each of the six cleansing rituals broadly follows the structure of the one we witness, which is led by Xouan and Phouang. About 30 of the accused sit in the dirt beneath the slatted floor of Nakasang’s ceremonial building – a small, red, wooden pavilion raised on stilts with a metal sloping roof – as the two mediums enter a trance. Having prayed over buckets of water, they tip the contents through holes in the floor onto those below, marking the start of the ceremony.
With surprising speed and agility (Phi Pob trying to escape the mediums, perhaps?) the accused take off at a tear through a shallow pond as other villagers fire rifles and a rusty AK-47 to scare off lingering spirits.
While wading through the pond, they cover themselves with as much mud and cow dung as possible, which, it is believed, will help draw out the evil spirit.
Once satisfactorily dirty, the accused run several hundred metres across rice fields to the Mekong. They enter the water and swim in small groups along the shoreline.
Having dashed back, in the town centre they wash, change and split into two groups, one consisting of those who live in Nakasang and Mai Xivilay, the other Phiengdy residents.
In trying to keep up with the chaotic action, we lose track of the first group and follow the Phiengdy contingent to a small, open-air structure by the side of the Mekong. The ceremony is completed when one of the mediums, still in a trance, ties protective string around a wrist of each of the participants, who then parade publicly around Nakasang.
Hoping to salvage their reputations, most of those accused are willing to go along with the programme lest they face fresh accusations, says Hours, who witnessed four such ceremonies in the late 1960s.
“Even if they don’t understand why they are accused, or even if they don’t [study] sorcery, etc, if they are excluded from their previous community, they have to follow the ritual of rehabilitation by cleansing themselves,” he says. “If they don’t do it they start to be seriously dangerous because [...] that means they are a real Phi Pob, a really bad person.”
The number of those accused of harbouring Phi Pob and being banished is on the rise, say Bounnyalad and former Phiengdy headman Pho Ket Phommasanh, with up to 10 now arriving in Nakasang every year.
Many arrivals, they say, claim they were targeted over a social conflict, and fall into two groups: nonconformists who argue with the local leadership; and people who cannot be prosecuted under the law even though they have acted against the community, such as cheats and those guilty of domestic abuse.
In northern Thailand, a culturally similar region and home to many ethnic Lao, the comparable Phi Ka has almost disappeared, according to Shigeharu Tanabe, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Centre for Ethnic Studies and a professor emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan.
“About 30 or 40 years ago in northern Thailand, near my field site, I came across a village [in which] more than a half [of the residents] were accused as Phi Ka,” Tanabe says. “These accused people included some native villagers, but more were people who had migrated from other villages, where they had been accused.”
They once served a similar purpose to Nakasang, but this and other Thai cleansing villages have been swept away by the “rapid process of capitalist development”.
In Laos, by contrast, modernisation has been a driving force behind the resurgence of the Phi Pob phenomenon, according to Baird. Although the absolute poverty rate in Laos has been halved in the past 20 years, according to a 2015 study by the Asian Development Bank, “the rich have benefited even more”, which threatens social cohesion.
“The onslaught of capitalism has resulted in more unevenness and inequality, and there’s also maybe more corruption, more money floating around, more opportunities,” says Baird.
Despite growing economic and religious freedom, Laos remains “the world’s most closed political system after North Korea”, according to The Economist magazine, with little room for dissent. It is also at the wrong end of most international indices that measure rule of law and human rights; last year it ranked 123 out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, for example.
Village councils remain trusted, however, with headmen and other leaders selected through popular vote and meetings held to express community concerns. This may, in part, explain the ongoing appeal of the Phi Pob tradition.
Nakasang’s treatment of the Phi Pob accused continues to be tolerated by district authorities, who are aware of the unique role it plays in preserving social cohesion, according to the headmen. The village continues to provide a clearly defined system of conflict resolution and rehabilitation in the absence of other solutions.
And as many who aren’t entirely convinced by religion or superstition do, some involved in the Phi Pob tradition are no doubt hedging their bets.
Buddhism won’t kill you, but Phi Pob ... well, who knows?