According to traditional Lao animist beliefs, the souls of a human being or animal normally occupy and vitalise specific areas of the body, but sometimes leave in times of strong emotion if tempted away by another being or an attractive place, or if captured by a malevolent spirit.
Their absence is likely to cause danger, disease, or even death. To avoid such disaster, the souk khouan ritual (‘calling back the souls’) is organised and family, friends and neighbours invited. A celebrant appeals across various different worlds, calling for the absent souls to return without delay. To attract them, delicacies are placed on a round plate below a pyramid of flowers: eggs, chicken, rice, cakes and so on.
After repeated calls, the souls are presumed to have returned to their host body and the celebrant ties white cotton threads to the patient’s wrists (or ears or legs in the case of elephants and buffalo, the only animals that this ritual is held for).
The souk khouan rite is practised at times of disease, before departures, on arrivals, at marriages or professional promotions - in short, on any occasion likely to cause the souls to leave, and such events are numerous in Laos.