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Effigies to ward off COVID-19 in Laos

République démocratique populaire lao
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang

Living Heritage Adaptation: Mannequin-like effigies are popping up in the Laos countryside as protection against bad spirits and Covid-19. They are a contemporary interpretations of the traditional villages’ gates.

Notes: The TAEC team didn’t directly observed this phenomenon, but saw several pictures of these effigies on social media. The TAEC research team enquired about these pictures and their origin, in order to interpret the phenomenon based on previous experiences and field trips.

Among the 50 officially categorised ethnic groups of Laos, many communities separate the safe space of their village from the outside world, where potentially dangerous spirits and entities roam. Some cultures, such as the Akha and Lanten, erect tangible village “gates,” using wood, bamboo, and symbolic amulets to delineate the boundary between the two, protecting the village’s inhabitants.

Mannequin like effigies that have recently popped up around the countryside of Laos are extensions of this.

Several of the pictures we could see on social media show effigies settled along roads of Dakcheung District in Sekong Province. The effigies are often placed along roads leading to villages, as a marker and warning. We see some figures wearing helmets, sunglasses, and masks to represent travellers, who are outsiders and may carry the virus. Thus, they depict what the village wishes to ward off. Others may depict fierce protectors, with guns, wooden swords, bamboo spikes, and sharp teeth added to the human and animal-like figures to frighten away any bad entities that could enter the village, be it evil spirits or viruses.

Like the village gate tradition, these symbolic boundary posts separate and protect the safe and controlled space of the village from the outside world, and can purify residents upon their return. This tradition is also common in Cambodia, where friends of TAEC have shared photos of “Ting Mong” on the gates of homes, even in urban areas.

That being said, these traditional protections in no way exclude people from obeying bio-medical recommendations of social distancing, isolation for labourers returning from Thailand, and frequent hand-washing, and wearing masks. Text messages, social media posts, radio and TV campaigns, posters, and village speakers have been effective at communicating how to avoid Covid-19 in Lao PDR.

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