Rituals of Remembrance in Laos Land

By A. S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.

Of the 11 South East Asian countries participating in the SEA Games, Lao is one of the quietest, sometimes unheard of, and not even whimpering nor whining even if the other bigger countries are boisterous and guarding so fiercely their claims to glory and honor.

Lao is referred in pop history as the land of a thousand elephants.

The elephant, as is the case with the other countries that is shares borders with such as Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam, is a ubiquitous symbol and icon of Laotian life.

Lao, of course, is Lao People’s Democratic Republic, officially a communist state.

For more than 600 hundred years ruled by a monarchy, the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975 forced the monarch to close shop and end their centuries of ruling over a mixture of upland and lowland Laotians, some Vietnamese, and some Chinese.

Occupied by France, the country gained its independence from French rule in 1949.

Today, because of this mixture of historical events, the country lists as its spoken languages the following: Lao, French, and English. Other languages from the various ethnic groups are spoken in this country.

My encounter with Lao is through my reading of the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text that has played a huge role in the education of a Laotian.

Lao, aside from its animist cultural heritage, is fundamentally Buddhist.

The Dhammapada says: “Mind is the most important thing. It is the source of all actions. If we act or speak with an impure mind, we suffer. But if we act of speak with a clean mind, then we shall be happy.”

As I planned my excursion into the SEA literary scene, I encountered many writers including T. C. Huo.

Huo has written two novels: A Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles—both documenting the uniqueness of what could be understood, in tropic terms, as the Loatian mind informed and shaped by animist and Buddhist thought.

The big characters in the novels are Laotian, with A Thousand Wings discoursing about the possibilities of love and finding it while Land of Smiles documents the trials and tribulations of the exodus of Laotians from the land of smiles.

Laotian life is like a Philippine rural set-up, with the laid-back life, with the hours waiting for the men and women coming from their farms.

For Laos is a farming country.

A country of valleys and plains and mountains—and a country suffused with the rituals of everyday rural life as well as the ritual of remembrance of the beautiful past, that past that is pure because it is thought of by the pure mind.

We remember here the everyday art that is as living as the next Loatian dreaming of the good life: the verbal jousts that reminds you of bukanegan, the balagtasan, or the crisotan.

We remember the Laotian songs and poems: spontaneous, lyrical, and entertaining, with the lam or khap, the love poems even set to music.

All night long you can expect the lam to go on and on—and the music and the merriments going on and on as well.

This celebration that is both cerebration and communal cohesion could last for three days.

By 1986, the Laotian government began a long process of what it called decentralization. In this, private enterprise played a role despite the official status of Laos as a communist state.

This decentralization spurred the growth of the Laotian economy that has, for many years, yielded four of every ten Laotians in the poverty line.

Pub, INQ, V1N24, Dec 2005

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