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Among the most sparsely populated countries on the planet, Laos is a land of rugged mountains and vast plains. There are a few sealed roads, but railroads are nonexistent and airports few. Under control of the Siamese in the 19th century and French in the early 20th century, Laos gained independence in 1949. It is officially a Communist state, though control has been decentralized and private enterprise encouraged in recent years. While economic growth has been steady in the last two decades, Laos is still relatively poor. More than 40% of the population falls beneath the poverty line. (I should mention that despite this, the situation seems less desperate to me than in neighboring Myanmar or even Vietnam. Perhaps my impression reflects the small population, yet I have generally seen poverty in Laos but not the wide-scale desperation encountered in other South and Southeast Asian countries.)
Laos boasts a diverse population of just over six million. The country is home to a number of tribal groups, generally classified by the elevation at which they reside. With the nation's primitive infrastructure and rugged landscape, interaction between the Lao Sung (those residing above the 1000-meter mark) and the Lao Luom (those living below 400 meters) was minimal until very recently. There are officially 68 ethnic groups in Laos, though ethnographer Laurent Chazee identified 119 distinct ethnicities among the Lao population. More than half of Lao people are Buddhists. Another 40% are animists, while Christianity is practiced by 1.5% of the population. In practice, the Lao commonly blend elements of multiple faiths.
I have made three trips to Laos. The shortest was a week and the longest a month. If forced to choose one Southeast Asian city where I'd be left indefinitely, Luang Prabang would top the list. There are more exciting and exotic locations, but few cities are as relaxing and pleasant. The chaos that often characterizes other Southeast Asian cities is largely absent in Luang Prabang. The natural setting is beautiful and the people friendly. I enjoyed exploring the mountainous region to the north. The hill tribe communities taught me a great deal about the "necessities" of life, and I found their cultural practices fascinating. I was less enamored by Vientiane, the Lao capital. Vientiane boasts lovely French architecture and several important temples but lacks the charm of Luang Prabang. I have not yet visited the southern half of the country.
Before kicking off the show, I should mention that Laos was heavily bombed during the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of the war in neighboring Vietnam. I sprinkle in details throughout the show, but the "Secret War" in Laos is worth mentioning here because it greatly impacted a nation that had no official involvement in the war. North Vietnamese troops illegally crossed the border into Laos; American bombs illegally followed. The end result for the Lao people was death and environmental impacts that linger today. (American bombs, of course, failed to make distinctions between Vietcong troops and Lao villagers. In addition, a number of bombs were allegedly dropped over Laos so B52 captains could fulfill their obligations to "empty the bomb bays" during air strikes over Vietnam.)
At present, the show includes 200 images featuring Lao temples and Buddha images, mountains and rivers, and of course the Lao people. My most recent trip occurred during celebrations of Ock Pan Sa in October 2005. I have included a few images of the candle-lit parade and elaborately decorated temples, but I still hope to develop a separate show depicting the events of Ock Pan Sa. It was among the loveliest celebrations I've experienced in Southeast Asia.
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