Traditional Lao literatures consists of Buddhist sutras, jatakas (stories connected with the past lives of the Buddha), poems and epics. Many works have been lost because they were originally written in form of palm-leaf books, which perish quickly. Other were recorded and passed down orally in the form of songs and recitations. For English speakers, the pickings are even slimmer as very few works of Lao literature have been translated to English.

The most famous piece of classical Lao literature is the “Pha Lak Pha Lam” , an epic based on the Hindu “Ramayana” . Hindu literature is believed to have been introduced to Laos via the Angor civilization in Cambodia around one thousand years ago. The Lao version of the story has uniquely Lao elements. There are even some tribal versions of the Ramayana.

There are also many folk stories. A famous story associated with Luang Prabang is the legend of Pu Yer Yer. It goes: Many, many years, under King Khun Boromrajathirat, a huge tree rose from the earth and became so big its branches blocked out the sky and brought darkness and coldness to the earth. The king asked if anyone could cut down the tree. No one responded. Finally an odd couple named Pu Yer Ya Yer emerged and said they would give it a try. They labored for three months and three days and achieved their goal. The only problem was that they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tree fell and their spirits are remembered today.

See Palm Leaf Books

“Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos” by Outhne Bounyavong (Hong Kong University Press, 1999)

Lao Folk Tales: The Mango Tree

One upon a time a fine mango tree grew in the jungle near the village. Every year when the fruit was ripe the village children ran into the jungle and picked the fruit. One day, however, when the children went to the tree, they found a fence all around it. At the side of the fence there were two huge, fierce dogs. A stranger came out of the jungle. "Go away!" he shouted loudly. " This is my tree now." "No, it is not," the children cried. "You don't own the jungle. The tree is everybody's tree. Anyone can have the fruit." [Source: /*]

The children were telling the truth but the stranger did not listen to them. He made his dogs chase the children back to the village. The children went to the village headman and told him what had happened. The village headman was very wise and, after some thought, he worked out a clever trick to play on the nasty stranger. The next day one of the girls of the village went to the tree again. She threw two pieces of meat to the dogs and climbed over the fence. Then she took a mango from the tree and began to eat it. Again, the stranger ran out of the jungle and he shouted at her : "Stop! You cannot take my mangoes. Go away." The girl took another bite from the mango. Suddenly she screamed out loud and fell to the ground. At that moment, the headman came by and asked : "What have you done to that girl?" "Nothing!" the man answered. "She took one of my mangoes and fell to the ground."/*\

"The headman looked sadly at the little girl. "She has mango sickness," he said. "Once every ten years, this mango tree has poisonous fruit. This must be the tenth year for this tree. You must not eat the mangoes on it this year." Then he picked up the girl and carried her back to the village. The next morning, the village headman took the children into the jungle to the mango tree. The stranger had gone, and he had taken his fence and his huge dogs with him. Once again, the children picked up the fruit, and carried them back to the village, laughing and singing because the tree was everybody's tree once more. /*\

The Magic White Swan

A farmer went fishing one day. He had a long fishing net. Like other farmers, he wore a piece of cloth around his head. He cast his net, but he got nothing. He did it again and again, but he got nothing. There was not a single fish. He cast his net once, twice, thrice, but he got nothing. He cast his net for the last time and pulled up the net. He pulled and he pulled. "Oh, it is so heavy." Then, he found a white pebble in his net. It was the most beautiful pebble that he had ever seen. So, he took the pebble home and placed it on the altar above his head. After dinner, he went to sleep. The next day, the white pebble had turned into a white swan. The swan approached the farmer and said, "I will take you to a place, a beautiful place, full of flowers. You can take whatever you like." [Source: /*]

So the swan began flapping its wings and flew off to the garden with the farmer sitting on its back. Once there the farmer enjoyed the garden. He picked one flower and felt that it was heavy. He picked the second one and it got heavier. He picked the third one and it was even heavier. "Oh, I don't think I should pick any more flowers. It will be too heavy for the swan to fly and take me home." So, the swan took the farmer back home and disappeared. The flowers were turned into gold! So, the farmer became a rich man. /*\

The news of his wealth reached the ears of his friend, who came to ask the farmer right away about how he had acquired his wealth. The farmer told his friend everything. The next day, his friend went to fish in the river with his long net. He cast his net, but he got nothing. He cast his net once, twice, thrice, but he got nothing. He cast his net for the last time and pulled up the net. Then, he found a white pebble in his net. He took the pebble home and placed it in his room. The pebble became the beautiful white swan who said to the second farmer:"I will take you somewhere today, to a flower garden."So, the man jumped on the swan's back and the swan took off to the flower garden. Once there the man picked the flowers, one, two, three. /*\

"Oh, I have to pick a lot since I have come here already," he said. So he picked two arms' full of flowers and went to the swan. "Take me home now. I will put these away and I will come back for more." So he jumped on the swan's back. It was so heavy. The swan almost could not fly. He flew, swaying left and right with weight. But he was able to take the man to his house with difficulty. The man jumped off the swan's back and said, "Now, wait here. Don't go away. I will go back to the garden to pick more flowers." Then he took the flowers into his room. When he came back, the swan disappeared. He returned to his room, but he found . . .only ordinary flowers, no gold. /*\

The King Who Tried to Make Dreams Come True

King Phrommathat of Pharanasi was once known for his greatness. His kingdom became the most prosperous and his people the most contented. The king could give his people everything. . . "Did I give my people everything?" wondered King Phrommathat. "Yes, everything. . . except for . . . their dreams," he thought."But as I am the greatest king, I should be able to give them everything, even their dreams." So, the next day, the king made a proclamation to his people. "From now on, tell me your dream. I will make everyone’s dream come true." [Source: /*]

The people of Pharanasi then went to have audience with their king daily, to recount their dreams from the previous night whereby the king fulfilled their every dream. One day, an old man walked into the palace to have an audience with the king. "Your Highness, last night I dreamed that I was married to the daughter of the richest man in the kingdom." "Your dream will come true tomorrow," promised the king, "I will order the rich man to have an audience with me first." The old man was so overwhelmed with joy. "I will be the happiest man on earth. The rich man's daughter is so young and beautiful." He was so overjoyed that he could not help himself. On his way home, he walked by the rich man's house to see the rich man's daughter. Once there, he said to the rich man, "I dreamed that I married your daughter last night and I have informed the king about it. He will arrange the wedding for me tomorrow." The rich man was alarmed but he called his daughter to let her know about it. /*\

The rich man’s daughter was a very smart girl. She said to the old man, "Oh, dear Grandfather, if the king orders us, we must follow his command. But we must wait for his order. Today, you must return to wait at your house first. When I receive the order from the king, I will be your wife." The old man returned home happily; he could hardly wait to have such a young and beautiful girl for his wife. The rich man asked his daughter, "Do you think you can really follow the king's command, my daughter?" "Oh, no Father, the old man is old enough to be my grandfather. I cannot marry him, but we have to think of how to get out of this situation," she answered.They continued discussing the matter until late that night. Finally, the girl came up with a brilliant plan. They asked their gardener to help to execute the plan. /*\

Early the next morning, the rich man’s gardener went to have an audience with the king. He was the first one on that day. So, he asked, "Your Majesty, is it true, as I was told, that you would grant your people their dreams?" "Yes, what is your dream?" the king asked. "Then, I am the happiest man on earth." The gardener continued, "I dreamed that I married the queen last night." The king was infuriated, "How dare you dream that you married my wife!" "I am not giving you my wife. This is not right. You are just a gardener; how can you marry a queen? Now off with your arrogant head." /*\

Before the guards arrived, the gardener said, "Please have mercy on me. You already gave me your word that you would give me my dream. I am following your command. You cannot talk about right or wrong now. Even the old man who was old enough to be the girl's grandfather was allowed to be married to a young woman of fourteen." The king was speechless. After awhile, he said, "All right, then, I will stop this command from now on. You are not going to marry my wife. The old man is not going to marry the rich man's daughter." /*\

The Daydreamer

Once long ago, a man lived alone in a village not far from a city. He was not yet married. He often spent his time dreaming. He owned a beautiful pot, very old, which he kept locked away in a big box near his bed. Every morning and every night he would open the box and took the pot out. He touched it with his hands, stroking it again and again, saying quietly to himself, "Oh my beautiful pot! You are my heart and I love you. You are very valuable and without you I couldn't be happy." And he would lose himself in his dreams. [Source: /*]

One morning he had just come from outside, and so he was holding his walking stick in his hand as he went to the box and took the pot out as usual. He held it, looking at it. Finally he put it on a table, quietly saying to himself, "Oh, my beautiful pot! You are the most beautiful pot in the world. You are very valuable and if I sold you I would have a lot of money." Suddenly a new idea came to him. He cried out involuntarily, " Oh yes, now I know what to do! What a wonderful thought!" . . . " I will sell my beautiful pot and become a millionaire! " He thought proudly. " I shall have enough money to divide into two parts. One part shall be for my living expenses. What shall I do with the other part? I know ! I'll buy a cow, big and strong. I'll look after her very well and she'll have a calf for me every year./*\

Let me think, if I have her for ten years, how many cows will I have then? And this is not counting their calves as well; their numbers will increase every year!" "But supposing I now have ten cows! That's too many for me.Who will help me to look after them? I'll have to get married. Yes, that's it! I can see my wife, beautiful, and helpful to me. I'm not any common man; I'm a rich man and we live a loving and happy life." "My beloved wife has given me a child — a son of course, and very handsome too. /*\

I love my son very much and he is very clever. I love my wife and child as much as I love myself. I look after them well, providing them with food and clothing. They love me in return and we are a happy family ... " "Now my son has grown to be five years old. Next year he'll go to school. I've prepared everything for him, his books, pens and pencils all in a beautiful school bag. He is a very good boy, intelligent and quick to learn. He is never naughty and always obeys me." "The day my family has been waiting for has arrived: my son goes to school. We are very pleased when I take him to the school, with his new school bag. He enjoys his time at school." "I take him to school every day. One day I am so busy that I have no time to take him to school. But the school is not far from my home so I let him go to school alone. I feel restless while he is away to school." /*\

"In the afternoon of that day I wait for him at the door of my house. There he is! Coming now, alone. Suddenly there is a dog running after him. It bites him! I am angry with the dog and cry out, "You, good for nothing dog, how dare you bite my son! " I turn quickly to hit it with my walking stick, like this! . . . like this!" But there were no cows, no wife, no son and lastly, no dog at all where he stood. There was only the beautiful pot in front of him and the walking stick in his hands. Thinking about the dog, he hit the pot with all his might, and it broke into many pieces! /*\

Suddenly he woke up, frightened from the day dream. What could he do? His pot had been broken. He wept with sadness, whispering to himself, "Oh dear, I have lost all hope. My beautiful pot is broken. What shall I do? Oh God, look upon me now, and please help me. I have ruined everything in my life!" But who could help him, because we know God will only help someone who can help himself? His pot was broken because he spent his time day dreaming, "building castles in the air." /*\

Luang Pho Khi Kai Po (The Abbot and the Chicken Droppings)

In the old days, parents sent their sons to live in the temple so that they could learn to read and write. Some of them were ordained novices; they would be serving the older monks or the abbot of a temple. Early in the morning, they would be walking with the abbot or the monk through the village carrying alms or offerings from villagers. If they could not go, they would be sweeping or cleaning the temple ground and the kuti or the living quarters of the monks or the abbot. [Source: /*]

One day the abbot was going out to receive alms from the villagers and the novice was not ready, so he said to the novice. "Well, if you are not coming with me, you must sweep the temple ground very well. Make sure that you don't let any chicken come near my living quarter." "Yes, I will do my best," said the novice. "Now, run along and get the broom and begin sweeping. Remember, if there is any chicken dropping near my kuti, you will have to lick it clear," the abbot said firmly. "Yes, sire," said the novice, feeling a little annoyed at the abbot's final comment. /*\

Once the abbot was gone, the novice swept the temple ground and the kuti clean. Then he thought of a trick to play on the nagging abbot. He boiled brown sugar until it was very thick and dropped it on various spots near the abbot's kuti. After awhile the brown sugar got hardened and looked exactly like chicken droppings. Then he sat and waited for the abbot. Later that morning, when the abbot arrived at his kuti, he saw the little drops all over the place, he became so mad. "Novice, come here. Look at all these droppings. Remember what I told you? Come and lick all of the droppings clear now," commanded the abbot. /*\

The novice ran quickly to the abbot and pretended to be upset. "Oh, no, that bad multi-colored rooster did it again. I will lick these droppings clear now." So he stooped down and began licking the first drop. "Oh, wow, this is sweet." Then, he continued licking with zest. While licking he kept saying "Oh, this is good. So sweet, so sweet." The abbot looked at him puzzled. When the novice was about to lick the last dropping, the abbot could no longer control his curiosity. He said, "stop, wait, novice. Is it really sweet?" "Yes, sire. It's really sweet, like brown sugar. I must say," said the novice. /*\

The abbot was quite old and he always liked to eat sweet things after meals. That day, no one offered dessert in his alm bowl. So, he said, "well, if it is so sweet. Let me try that last drop." "Sure," said the boy. So the abbot stooped down and licked that drop until it was all gone. "Wow, it was really sweet. Now, Novice, tomorrow, get that multi-colored rooster here and make him drop more deliciously sweet droppings here," commanded the abbot. /*\

So, the next day, the abbot went to take alm in the village as usual, but he could not wait to get back to his kuti and to have more of the delicious chicken droppings for dessert. The novice happily followed the abbot's command. When the abbot got back to his kuti, he said, "now don't you touch those droppings. I will have them after my morning meal." After his meal, the abbot came to begin licking the first drop. "Gaggg, this smells and tastes bad. It's not like the drop I had yesterday." "Novice, what's wrong?" he asked."Oh, that must not be the multi-colored rooster's dropping. Another chicken must have come round to drop without my knowledge. Please try the next one," suggested the novice. And so the abbot tried almost every dropping, before he realized that he was fooled. /*\

Xiangmiang Outwits the King

Xiangmiang is a notorious trickster who was so clever that the king had to hire him to work in court. But the king did not really like Xiangmiang. So he tried to find occasions to outwit Xiangmiang. One day the king thought of a plan. He called a meeting and he made an annoucement. "Today, I have a game to play. If anyone could make me jump in the pond, . . .I would give a reward to him." Everyone in the meeting was silent, for the king was the most powerful man in the kingdom. They did not dare to accept the king's challenge. [Source: /*]

So the king turned to Xiangmiang. "How about you Xiangmiang? You are so clever; don't you want to try?" Xiangmiang spoke politely and humbly, "OH, Your Majesty, I am your humble servant. I would not dare to make you jump in the pond at all." The king was delighted; he laughed loudly, slapping his hand on his knee. /*\

But, then Xiangmiang's voice stopped him from laughing. "Your Majesty, I would not dare to make you jump in the pond. But if you were already in the pond, I am sure I could make Your Majesty come out of it." The king then said, "All right," and jumped in the pond. "Now, make me get out of the pond, Xiangmiang." Xiangmiang smiled and said, "Your Majesty, I have just made you jump in the pond." The king was dumbfounded, but he kept silent, waiting for another chance to outwit this court trickster. /*\

Xiangmiang and the Snail

Once Xiangmiang walked to a swamp near his village. He saw a snail moving slowly along the edge of the pond. "Aha, ha, ha, ha, Snail, you walk so slowly. Where are you going?" asked Xiangmiang. "I am going to that edge of the swamp," answered the snail. "Ha, ha, ha . . . I figure it must take you one month to reach the other edge of the swamp," said Xiangmiang. With that Xiangmiang laughed at the Snail. [Source: /*]

The snail looked up, feeling quite insulted. "Well, if you think you walk so fast, do you want a race?" The snail's proposal tickled Xiangmiang so much that he laughed even louder. "Of course. When do you want to have a race? Now?" Xiangmiang challenged the snail. The snail became quite nervous, but maintained his cool. "Oh, no, not now. I want you to have time to get in shape for the race," said the snail. "What?" exclaimed Xiangmiang loudly in dismay. "Why don't we have a race tomorrow, this time, here?" said the snail. "Sure," said Xiangmiang. The snail became a little worried about the race. So, he went to his snail relatives for help. Other snails were more than happy to help because they would like to see the day that Xiangmiang was outwitted. /*\

The next day came. The snail was waiting at the edge of the swamp for Xiangmiang. When Xiangmiang arrived, the snail said, "Xiangmiang, since I am so small, it might be difficult for you to see where I am in the race. Why don't you call my name after you have run for awhile and I will answer your call? You can call, 'Snail!' And I can answer, 'Kuuk!'" "All right, let's rehearse," agreed Xiangmiang. "Snail!" "Kuuk!" answered the snail. /*\

Then, the race began. The snail began to move slowly and Xiangmiang ran off as fast as he could. Then, he looked back and could not see the snail. So, he called, "Snail!" "Kuuk!" came the snail's answer from way ahead of Xiangmiang. "How can that snail go so fast? He is ahead of me. I have to run faster. I am sure I can catch up with him easily," said Xiangmiang confidently to himself. He ran and ran and ran as fast as he could. After awhile, he looked back and could not see the snail. So, he called, "Snail!" "Kuuk!" came the snail's answer from way ahead of Xiangmiang. /*\

Xiangmiang began to feel a little concerned. "Oh, no! he is ahead of me again. I have to run faster. I think I can still catch up with him," said Xiangmiang with some confidence. So, he ran and ran and ran as fast as he could. Then, he called, "Snail!" "Kuuk!" came the snail's answer from way ahead of Xiangmiang. Xiangmiang became so exhausted and worried. "Oh, no! Not again! He is ahead. I have to run even faster now," said Xiangmiang. /*\

So, he ran and ran and ran until legs could no longer carry him. As he was about to lose consciousness, he called weakly, "Snail!" And he heard faintly, "Kuuk!" ahead of him. As he passed out, he still wondered how the slow moving snail could defeat him in that race. But we all know that the snail made a plan for every snail in that swamp to stay at every interval from the beginning line to the finishing line, waiting for Xiangmiang's call. And all snails look and sound just alike. And the this is the first time that the trickster was outwitted. /*\

Traditional Lao Literature

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “The earliest recorded history of the Lao dates from the fourteenth century. In 1353, the Lao prince Fa Ngum, with the help of the Khmer, united Laos and much of present-day northeastern Thailand into a kingdom known as Lan Xang. Characteristics of literature from this period reveal both the literary influence of various Buddhist and Hindu civilizations of South and Southeast Asia and that of an early (probably oral) literary tradition of the Lao themselves. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“The primary cultural influence on Lan Xang was that of the closely related Tai Yuan kingdom of Lanna, which roughly comprised the area that is now northern Thailand. From the sixteenth century or earlier, Lan Xang developed a sophisticated tradition of art, literature, and scholarship. The temple was the cultural and educational center of the kingdom, with a power that rivaled that of the monarchy. -

“Knowledge of literature, and literacy itself, were skills acquired at the temple, where young males commonly spent several years as novices and/or Buddhist monks. Regardless of their origins, literary works were typically presented in the form of Jakarta Tales, life stories of the Bodhisattva recorded in the Tripitaka Buddhist scriptures. Lao literature was traditionally performed by monks, novices, or laymen with prior religious experience. Literary works were stored in temple libraries and private homes, and performed regularly during religious festivals throughout the year. -

Decline of Traditional Lao Literature and the Rise Modern Literary Tradition

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “The same factors that caused the transformation and decline of traditional literature essentially brought about the creation and development of modern Lao writing. In the late seventeenth century, the Kingdom of Lan Xang split into three smaller kingdoms. The subsequent weakness of the Lao led to internal instability followed by dependence upon and eventual domination by foreign powers. By the end of the eighteenth century, the region that had once comprised Lan Xang had largely fallen under the political control of the Thai. At the end of the nineteenth century, Siam was forced to cede to the French their Lao territories east of the Mekong River, an area that approximates the modern political entity of Laos. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“The Thai and French did not immediately have a significant cultural impact on the Lao. Before the final years of the nineteenth century, the Thai were mostly content to preserve indigenous cultural and political systems, and depended on the local elite to deliver tribute and taxes. The French similarly viewed the development of Laos as a low priority in comparison with the neighboring colonies of Vietnam and Cambodia, which showed greater economic potential. The traditional culture of the Lao therefore did not undergo a great transformation until the 1930 or afterward. -

“The state institutionalization of secular education in twentieth-century Southeast Asia has had a profound effect on traditional cultures throughout the region. Lao art forms, including literature, were marginalized as the power of their patron, the Buddhist temple, was reduced, and religious education was replaced by modern schools with a western-oriented curriculum. Traditionally, literature served the temple by teaching an individual to accept his place within Lao society and the greater Buddhist world. Lao education under the French was tailored to suit a different goal. Students who attended French schools in Laos were taught to see themselves as colonial subjects in a world with France at its center. In neighboring northeastern Thailand, students were educated to be citizens of a country under the political and cultural domination of the central Thai. As traditional literature appeared to discourage rather than encourage modern educational objectives, it ceased to be taught. Elements of traditional Lao culture came to be viewed as remnants of an "undeveloped" past whereas western civilization was admired as a model for emulation. During the colonial period, Lao students educated at government schools were exposed to French literature in place of that of the Lao. Secular prose fiction, previously unheard of in Lao society, became fashionable among the upper class, replacing poetic epics in prominence. Exposure of the Lao elite to French literature at school, and their emulation of the literature, led to the origin of modern Lao fiction. -

“The fact that traditional literature continues to remain a living tradition in Laos in the present day is testimony both to the limited availability of government education to much of the country’s inhabitants and the inability of modern schooling to transform the worldview of the Lao. In comparison with the majority of nations in Southeast Asia, the introduction and spread of modern education proceeded at a sluggish pace throughout Laos. The first lycee (upper-level high school in the nation's capital was not established until 1920s, shortly before independence. In the larger towns outside the capital, middle school was the highest educational level available, and in the rural areas where the majority of the people lived, government education was nonexistent. Students who wished to further their education had no alternative but to study at a temple or go abroad. Statistics taken from the mid-1930s show that twice as many Lao were being educated in the temples as in government schools (Gunn 1988) Even in the present, many of the rural communities in Laos are lacking in schools, teaching materials, and qualified teachers. -

“A second important factor that retarded the growth of a modern literature was the slow development of modern technology. Although printed publications in Laos date from the 1920s, the first Lao language newspaper to appear on a regular basis was not until the early 1940s, considerably later than in most of the nations within the region. Until the middle of this century, the primary method of reproducing a manuscript in Laos was the centuries-old practice of transcribing text onto strips of palm leaves with a stylus. In the 1930s, it was common for monks in Vientiane to take traditional Lao stories published in the more technologically advanced region of northeastern Thailand and copy them onto palm leaves for the purpose of circulation. The rugged geography of Laos, with its extensive mountain ranges and forest, has also proved a formidable obstacle to the country’s development. Certain areas of Laos remain isolated from substantial contact with the outside world although the situation is changing rapidly at present. -

Origins of Modern Lao Literature During the French Colonial Period (1893 to 1954)

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “The earliest works of modern literature in Laos were composed and circulated exclusively among members of the Lao elite, predominantly in the capital city of Vientiane. In contrast to the majority of their countrymen, the Lao nobility studied at schools where the sole language of instruction was French, and French history, culture, and literature were taught in place of their own. Many continued their education in France. Members of the Lao elite frequently became more knowledgeable in matters related to French society and culture than the traditions of Laos. Prince Souvanna Phouma, for example, who was later to serve as prime minister of Laos for approximately two decades, felt more comfortable conversing in French than in Lao. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“Modern Lao literature was originally composed in the French language and imitated French literary styles. The first modern novel composed in Lao, Phra Phoutthahoup Saksit (The Sacred Buddha Image) by Somchine Nginn, was published in 1944. The author wrote the introduction to the work in French and, presumably due to the novelty of publishing a work in Lao, advertised on the cover: "Written in easy-to-understand Lao language." The motivation behind certain works of literature during this time was also overtly political in nature. Under the leadership of Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram in the 1940s, the neighboring nation of Siam sought to absorb Laos (and other territories under European colonial rule) as part of a Greater Siamese state. -

“Whereas French remained the official language of Laos during colonial rule, in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, the use of the Lao language and culture were officially promoted in an attempt to forge a Lao national identity distinct from that of the Thai. In so doing, the intent of colonial administrators was to discourage Lao cultural affinity with the people of Siam. -

Lao Literature from the Second World War to the Communist Victory 1945 to 1975

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “Lao literature from the Second World War to the present reflects the turbulence of the country’s politics. To understand the literature, it is therefore necessary to review Lao history during this period. In the final years of French colonial rule, a nationalist movement known as the Free Lao (Lao lssara) was established under the leadership of several Lao princes. During the Second World War, the Japanese took control of the country and entrusted the country’s administration to the Free Lao. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

When the French regained control of Laos in 1946, the leaders of the Free Lao fled to Thailand, where they set up a government in exile. In 1951, the French offered partial independence to the Lao, and in response, the Free Lao was dissolved. Moderate members of the group such as Prince Souvanna Phouma agreed to return and work together with the French to prepare for the country’s independence within the French Union. However, Prince Souphannouvong, the half brother of Prince Souvanna Phouma, was not satisfied with French conditions for independence. He joined forces with the Vietnamese to create a resistance movement known as the Lao Patriotic Front (Neo Lao Hak Satil. When Laos received independence in 1954, the two half brothers, Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Souphannuvong, found themselves on opposing sides of a conflict that was soon to develop into a major war. Unfortunately for the Lao, each side of the internal conflict was supported by a major superpower. The Royal Lao government was backed by the United States whereas the Lao Patriotic Front received assistance from Vietnam and the Soviet Union. When the war was finally resolved two decades later, Laos had the distinction of being one of the most heavily bombed nations on earth. -

“Literature produced during the war, from the early 1950s to the communist victory in 1975, can be divided into two distinct groups: literature created in the regions of the country controlled by the Royal Lao government and literature from the "liberated zones" governed by the Lao Patriotic Front. -

“Lao literature of the Royal Lao government was composed and circulated primarily in Vientiane. Publishing in Laos was still at a very basic stage in the 1950s. A few monthly magazines appeared during this period, some of which included literary content. By the mid-1960s, short stories were regularly featured in newspapers and magazines, and books of fiction began to appear. Major writers of fiction included Pakian (Pa Nail), Dara (Douang Champa), and Douangdeuane (Dok Ket), who were children of Maha Sila Viravong, an important scholar of traditional Lao history, culture, and literature. Outhine Bounyavong was also a prominent author. -

“French and Thai literature formed the major influence on Lao writing throughout the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. Whereas Lao people continued to learn French to the level where they could read and appreciate French literary works, the Thai language is similar enough to Lao to be understood without great difficulty. By the early 1970s, there was an audience large enough to support the existence of a popular magazine devoted solely to literature, initially Pheuane Keo, followed by Pliai Nam, which lasted until two months after the revolution. Phai Nam was founded by the Lao scholar Maha Sila Viravong, and the editorial board consisted largely of his children, who were its major contributors. -

Lao Revolutionary Literature, Early 1950s to 1975

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “According to official Lao sources, revolutionary literature developed from the traditional literature of the common people of Laos, which expressed the people’s discontent with feudal rule and foreign domination (Bo et al. 1987: 297-298). For example, the ancient Lao poetic work San Leup Pha Sun has been interpreted as coded resistance to Thai invaders during the early nineteenth century, and taught to Lao schoolchildren as an example of the love that the Lao have traditionally felt for the homeland.8 However, regardless of the extent to which political sentiment was expressed in traditional form in the past, literature composed in the "liberated zones" of the Lao Patriotic Front (and subsequently, contemporary literature) has developed according to the directives of the Lao revolutionary movement. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“Much like the Buddhist temple, the Lao Patriotic Front made considerable use of traditional literary forms to convey its political message to the Lao people. During the two decades that followed the Second World War, Lao revolutionary literature was composed primarily in ancient poetic forms. Even at present, a considerable percentage of the literature published in Laos is written in traditional verse. -

“Until the mid-1960s, prose narratives consisted of articles, reports, and an occasional story by staff and soldiers of the Lao Patriotic Front in their newspaper Lao Issara (Bo 1993: 27). Articles in Lao Issara typically consisted of the life stories of Lao men and women of various ethnic groups who sacrificed personal interest for the cause of the revolution. Idealized portrayals of revolutionary heroes were the model for many later works of Lao fiction. By 1965, short stories commonly appeared in the newspaper of the Lao Patriotic Front and in book form. Whereas Lao revolutionary fiction was originally composed "in the style of a report" (Bo et al. 1987: 389) considerations of an artistic nature grew in importance with the development of the literature. -

Lao Literature from 1975 to the Present

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “From 1975 to the present, literature has continued to serve a political role in Laos. Following the communist victory, facilities for the production and distribution of revolutionary literature were greatly improved as the center of the Lao Patriotic Front moved from rural Sam Neua province to the nation‘s capital. In the early years after the revolution, the cost of paper and printing was subsidized by the Lao government and the Soviet Union. Books were distributed free or at minimal cost, and individual print runs often ran into the tens of thousands. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“Lao authors dating from this period to the present can be divided into three categories. The first category includes writers such as Chanthy Deuansavahn and Souvanthone Boupphanouvong who originally served the revolutionary cause in the liberated zones prior to the communist victory. The second category consists of established authors from the old regime who have continued to use their literary skills in the service of the new Lao society. Outhine Bounyavong is a prominent example of this group,which also includes Dara Viravong (Douang Champa), Douangdeuane Viravong (Dok Ket), Sen Milamay (Seriphap). The third category is made up of a younger generation of writers who began their literary careers in the years immediately preceding the revolution or afterwards. Authors include Bounthanong Somsaiphon, Saisuwan Phengphong, and Viset Savengseuksa. -

“Lao writers from 1975 to the present generally work as civil servants. In the first decade after the revolution, many authors worked for the State Printing House, where they translated communist and socialist literature into Lao while composing their own fiction. At present, the majority of Lao authors are reporters for government newspapers and magazines. Writing fiction is one part of their overall duties. -

“In the late 1980s, following Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Lao government initiated a series of economic and social reforms known collectively as Jintanakan Mai (New Imagination). Taking advantage of the resulting liberalization, for a short period of time Lao authors to a certain degree made use of fiction to offer constructive critical observations on the state of Lao society and culture. In recent years, however, as a result of severe government control, authors have avoided political analysis in their writing (except in the service of government policy), or have sent their works to be published in Thailand, or in some cases have stopped writing altogether. -

“Market demand is increasingly affecting the content of contemporary literature. Lao authors, no longer subsidized by the government, are struggling to meet the rising cost of publishing. The number of book-length collections averages approximately ten per year with an average print run of two thousand copies. The large majority of poetry and fiction is published in newspapers and literary magazines. As literature comes to depend on public appeal, romance and general entertainment are rapidly gaining in popularity. -

A significant difference between the ancient and modern literary traditions of the Lao is the extent to which each has been incorporated into Lao consciousness and culture. Whereas traditional literature was composed and performed in areas inhabited by the ethnic Lao for several centuries, modern Lao prose fiction has existed for only half a century and has yet to possess either a large audience or a wide range of composers. -

Life of Outhine Bounyavong

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “Outhine Bounyavong is a well-known author of contemporary Lao fiction. Outhine was born in 1942 in Sayabouri, a province in northwestern Laos. At an early age, he was sent to live with relatives in Vientiane, where opportunities for education and employment were greater than in the countryside. During his school years, French was the language of instruction, and literature classes taught students to appreciate works of French origin. Among Outhine’s teachers was Somchine Nginn, the author of the first Lao novel and a noted composer of French verse. Outhine was forced to leave school as a result of financial difficulties. During the 1960s and early 1970s, he held a wide variety of jobs, including clerk at an electrical firm, librarian at the United States Information Service (USIS), and bookkeeper for a Japanese company that was expanding the runway of the Vientiane airport. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“From the period of French colonization to the present, literary influences on authors of Lao fiction have been dictated by the limited supply of books available in the nation’s capital. During the 1960s, there were only two bookshops, one that sold Thai language material and another that sold works composed in French. Outhine became familiar with American fiction while working at the library of the USIS. In the late 1960s, Outhine began to associate with a group of writers who were the children of the pioneering Lao scholar Maha Sila Viravong. He eventually married one of the most prolific writers in this group, Duangdeuane Viravong (Dok Ket), who remains to this day one of the most prominent female Lao authors. -

“The 1960s and early 1970s was a period of turbulence and traumatic change in Laos. In a capital the size of Vientiane, the large American military presence was highly visible, accompanied by prostitution, drugs, and organized crime. Vientiane society was not only starkly at odds with the rest of the country but also with traditional culture. Whereas earlier works of modern Lao fiction had served merely as entertainment for a small elite, the generation of Lao writers who came of age during this time quickly grasped the concept that fiction was an effective form of social commentary and criticism. The earliest stories in this collection of Outhine’s works were composed during this period. -

“After the communist victory in 1975, Outhine continued his career as a writer under greatly different circumstances. In the first decade after the revolution, he initially worked for the State Publishing House, followed by employment at the Progress Publishing House in Moscow, where he translated English and French works into Lao. In the early years of the new regime, authors were sent to interview revolutionary soldiers and record their life histories. A major result of this project was Sieng Kong Khong Latthi Vilason Pativat (The Echoing Sound of the Doctrine of Revolutionary Heroes), published in 1982, in which Outhine was the major contributor. Outhine was also one of the founders of Vannasin, a magazine devoted to literature and culture, which remains the most important literary publication in Laos to the present day. -

Works by Outhine Bounyavong

Peter Koret wrote in “Contemporary Lao Literature”: “Outhine’s earliest writing consisted of short stories and prose pieces which appeared in various newspapers and magazines. The limited audience that existed at the time preferred humorous works to fiction with a serious theme. In the mid-1960s, Outhine published his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Sivith Ni Ku Lakone Kom (Life Is Like a Short Play). At the time, collections of Lao fiction were rare. It was not only necessary for an author to finance the cost of his publication, but also to take responsibility for its distribution. Outhine walked the streets of Vientiane, placing books in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and anywhere else he imagined an audience to exist. Approximately half of the two thousand copies of his book were eventually sold. [Source: Peter Koret, “Contemporary Lao Literature,” pp 3-35,Mother Beloved -]

“Works from the 1970s include "Death Price" which describes the problems faced by a poor woman when she attempts to visit her husband, who is stationed up-country as a soldier. She is forced to wait at the airport for several days, continually denied permission to board a plane because she cannot afford to bribe the lieutenant in charge of seating assignments. In "Dic and Daeng," published in 1974, the behavior of certain members of Lao society is compared to the actions of two dogs and their owners. As the dogs bully each other in competition over scraps of food, the owners of the animals are continually drawn into their petty conflicts. On one level, the indirect nature of the criticism provides protection for its author. At the same time, in a country where dogs are viewed as contemptuously as they are in Laos, a comparison of this type is particularly biting. -

Two stories in the collection of "Mother Beloved" are typical of literature composed in the years following the revolution. "Contribution," published in 1990, illustrates how people can serve their nation, regardless of their status in society. The story takes place in 1988, at a time when Laos and Thailand were involved in a short but violent border dispute. The main character is a poor man who supports himself by repairing shoes. As the tale begins, the shoe-mender is upset that a customer has not returned to collect a pair of shoes. When the owner of the shoes eventually returns, he is dressed in a military uniform and missing one of his legs. The man explains that he volunteered to fight in the border clashes, from which he has returned as a cripple. The shoe-mender gives the shoes to the crippled soldier without asking for payment. He realizes with pride that even a humble shoe-mender can, in his own way, contribute to his country’s war effort. -

A second story, "What a Beauty," first published in 1978, is similar in plot to several works from this period that describe the relationship of Lao women to the revolution. In this type of story, a Lao woman oppressed by the corrupt capitalist society of pre-revolutionary Laos ultimately finds respect and romance from the revolutionary cadres. The story’s heroine, a young woman named Phaengkham, is unpopular because she is poor. During the Lao lamuong dance described in the story’s opening scene, she cannot find a dance partner because her clothes are not fashionable and she does not know how to dance in western style. Eventually, however, one man shows an interest in her and explains to her privately that he understands the true value of poor people, farmers, peasants, and laborers. Only after the revolution does Phaengkham learn that her admirer is a member of the Lao People’s Army. As for the wealthier women who had been her competition on the pre-revolutionary dance floor, after the communist victory they all have either fled the country or been sent away "to one of those Women’s Islands to be re-educated." -

“In the early 1990s, Outhine was employed at the Ministry of Information and Culture. He composed children’s fiction, including Pa Kho Lopha (The Greedy Striped Snake-Headed Fish), a collection of short stories which teach moral lessons. He also rewrote Lao poetic classics in simple prose to make them more accessible to a modern generation. In 1992, Outhine traveled with his wife to the University of Washington in Seattle, where they both spent a year teaching the Lao language to American students. Upon returning to Laos, he helped establish a printing shop which was named Phaf Nam after the literary magazine founded by Maha Sila Viravong. -

“Outhine’s short stories of recent years provide a commentary on the changing state of Laos and its culture. Much of his work is devoted to environmental concerns. "Frangipani," originally published in 1980, describes an incident in which tamarind trees are torn down to facilitate the placement of power lines in a Vientiane neighborhood. The story reveals the action’s negative effect on the neighborhood’s people. The tale ends on a positive note, however, as frangipani trees planted by the narrator and his neighbors eventually grow to replace the trees that were cut down. -

“Another topic commonly addressed in Outhine’s fiction is the wisdom of Lao villagers and the value of traditional customs. In the story "Wrapped-Ash Delight," published in 1990, a village girl steals a silver belt that a bather has left on a riverbank. Although she later feels guilty about her action, the young woman is afraid to return the stolen object and expose herself as a thief. The problem is cleverly solved through the use of a traditional custom. Each of the villages who had been present at the river bank when the belt was stolen is instructed to bring a packet of ashes wrapped in a banana leaf to the house of the village headman. By placing the silver belt in the banana leaf, the guilty woman is able to return the stolen object without being shamed. It must be emphasized that stories of this type are not merely intended as a patriotic expression of Lao appreciation for their own culture. These stories serve as a warning against the rapid pace of modernization as well as the unquestioning acceptance of foreign culture and values that is becoming the norm. Outhine writes at a time when traditional culture is increasingly being relegated to the status of an artifact, destined to be placed in museums for the sole purpose of bringing in foreign revenue. -

“In recent years, Lao society has rapidly changed as result of the increasing cultural impact of the west. Vientiane in the late 1990s is strikingly different than it was at the beginning of the decade. One hopes that the increased contact between Laos and the west will not only result in the westernization of Laos, but also in a greater understanding of Lao society in the west. This collection of short stories by Outhine Bounyavong is intended as a step in that direction. The fiction collected in this book not only serves as an introduction to contemporary Lao literature, but also provides valuable insight into the changing state of Lao society, as viewed from the perspective of a Lao author whose works span from the pre-revolutionary period to the present. -

Coroner’s Lunch and the Dr. Siri Paiboun Series

The Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill is a series of nine primary works set in the mid-1970s featuring the fictional character Dr. Siri Paiboun, a French-trained physician who is the national coroner of Laos. The works in the series are: 1) “The Coroner's Lunch” (2004); 2) “Thirty-Three Teeth” (2005); 3) “Disco for the Departed” (2006); 4) “Anarchy and Old Dogs” (2007); 5) “Curse of the Pogo Stick” (2008); 6) “The Merry Misogynist” (2009); 7) “Love Songs from a Shallow Grave” (2010); 8) “Slash and Burn” (2011); 9) “The Woman Who Wouldn't Die” (2013). British-born Cotterill has been a cartoonist and teacher and worked in refugee camps. He has written a number of other books, some of which are available only in Thai. He lives in Thailand.

In a review of “The Coroner's Lunch” by Colin Cotterill, Marietta Dunn wrote in the Philadelphia Enquirer, “ The dead come to Dr. Siri Paiboun. Their bodies come to him in the morgue at Vientiane, Laos' capital, where he is the only coroner. And their spirits come to him in his dreams and half-waking moments to help him solve their murders.In The Coroner's Lunch, the debut book in a new mystery series, Colin Cotterill has created a fresh and innovative detective who goes straight to the heart and soul, and without any sappy sentiment. Cotterill, a Londoner who has taught in Laos and now lives in Thailand, knows how to make real magic with his writing, both for the reader and for Dr. Siri. [Source: Marietta Dunn, Philadelphia Enquirer, January 23, 2005 \\]

“Dr. Siri, a 72-year-old widower with a gentle nature and an acute dislike for wrongheaded authority, is a reluctant coroner. As a young doctor, he was also a reluctant revolutionary, joining the Communist Pathet Lao to please his pretty new wife and giving up most of his life to the movement. With the Communists' victory in 1975, he assumes he will get his reward - retirement and a pension. Much to his chagrin, the new Communist authority, which has seen Laos hemorrhage its professional classes (many of whom simply swim across the Mekong River to Thailand), conscripts him into his new post. Dr. Siri, who has never performed an autopsy, suddenly finds himself in an ill-equipped lab with two unlikely helpers - a young nurse with an addiction to forbidden fan magazines and a male attendant with a strong body but a childlike mind. \\

“During his many years of treating patients, Dr. Siri discovered that those he failed to save sometimes invaded his dreams, and he never really knew why, though "the departed didn't seem to blame him" for their deaths. "They were just bystanders, watching events with him." But a year after he takes the job of coroner, he notices that the people he has autopsied are coming into his dreams in an urgent way, desperately trying to show him what happened to them. A dead fisherman, the dead wife of a party official, a Vietnamese driver on a mission to Laos, a beautiful young woman who supposedly slit her wrists - he sees them in the shadows, or he conjures them in his nightmares. \\

“As he tries to solve these cases, Dr. Siri must deal with officious comrades, treacherous bureaucrats, and even an assassin. But for every villain, he is surrounded by his steadfast supporters: a lifelong friend, highly placed in the party; a science teacher who shares her precious chemicals with him; a trusted policeman who helps the doctor uncover the truth; and his two loyal lab workers, Dtui and Geung. Wonderful characters, every one. \\

“Dr. Siri and the policeman both admire Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, and the policeman even addresses Dr. Siri as Maigret in a secret letter about a murder. Maigret is, of course, a cerebral detective who works largely on intuition. Dr. Siri would also seem to solve his cases that way, but, as the reader learns, it is true magic, a true connection to the spirit world, that feeds Dr. Siri's dreams. \\

“The Coroner's Lunch is awash in the minute details of daily life in Laos in the 1970s: the loudspeakers incessantly broadcasting uplifting messages to the people, the rickety living quarters and less-then-stellar food and drink, the spies who are everywhere, the "re-education" camps. But threaded through it all is the humor - with an edge, to be sure - that Dr. Siri and his friends bring to the toughest situations. During Dr. Siri's daily riverside lunch with his longtime party friend Civilai, they joke about an official trip that the coroner must take to investigate deaths at a reservoir: "You taking your snorkel?" Civilai asks. "I can't swim," Dr. Siri replies. "So that's why you're still in Laos!" his friend says. \\

Most extraordinary are the details of the coroner's journey to an isolated part of the country inhabited by Hmong tribesmen who believe deeply in good and malign spirits, a place of amulets and exorcisms, where "deep down in his agnostic scientific soul" Dr. Siri "wanted all this talk of ghosts and mediums to be true." It is here, after so many years of confusion, that the coroner begins to understand - and even accept - his real nature. \\

Book: The Coroner's Lunch By Colin Cotterill (Soho, 2005)

New York Times Review of Anarchy and Old Dogs

In a review of Colin Cotterill’s “Anarchy and Old Dogs, Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, “Laos may seem an unlikely setting for a series of terrifically beguiling detective novels steeped in local color and history. But look at... Dr. Siri Paiboun, the septuagenarian coroner at the center of an outstanding string of books by Colin Cotterill. As his country’s national coroner Dr. Siri often finds himself on an intimate basis with the dead. And inevitably certain questions arise. That Dr. Siri’s body is host to the spirit of a thousand-year-old shaman only makes his intuition that much stronger. [Source: Janet Maslin, New York Times, August 23, 2007 +++]

“This series first appeared here less than three years ago with “The Coroner’s Lunch,” which is set in 1976. By the time of “Anarchy and Old Dogs,” the fourth Dr. Siri book, it is 1977, and Laos has not changed for the better. Dr. Siri lives in the historian’s nightmare: interesting times. In 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Pathet Lao overthrew the country’s monarchy and assumed control. In the language that makes these books so attractively sardonic, Mr. Cotterill writes that “the government was starting to look like a depressingly unloved relative who’d come to visit for the weekend and stayed for two years.” +++

“Dr. Siri’s long experience has inevitably left him skeptical. Educated in Paris in the 1920s, he returned to Laos in 1939 and joined the Free Laos (or Lao Issara) resistance against French rule. By now, as Siri’s best friend puts it, “80 percent of our topic of conversation is about the inadequacy of our government, the government we fought for 30 years to install.” Mr. Cotterill’s Laos is populated by bureaucrats, deflated revolutionaries and covert royalists who secretly lament socialist rule. +++

“Mr. Cotterill has a deft way of weaving these circumstances into whimsical, more personal stories that feature Siri and an equally memorable set of supporting characters. It is not unusual to find a renegade Thai forest monk or a transvestite fortuneteller wandering casually through the capital city, Vientiane, where Dr. Siri works. And no one seems wildly surprised when, in the event that kicks off this book, a blind dentist on a bicycle is run over by a logging truck. But when it develops that the blind dentist was en route to a post office to pick up a coded message written in invisible ink, curiosity becomes impossible to avoid. +++

The anarchy of the book’s title is a prospect raised once the message is deciphered; it appears to signal an imminent military coup. And one of the old dogs is, of course, Siri. The other is his best friend, Civilai, a senior member of Laos’s Politburo. Together they are “undiplomatic old coots” wisecracking about the discouraging and volatile state of their nation. “The nice thing about socialism,” Siri says at one point, “is that everyone — no matter what their physical or mental state — gets treated equally.” But Mr. Cotterill amends this: “He didn’t bother to add the word ‘badly.’ ” +++

“Improbable as it may sound in the midst of death, disappointment, old age and the “16 shades of brown dust” that can be found all over the countryside, “Anarchy and Old Dogs” has moments of mordant hilarity. For instance Mr. Cotterill concocts a wonderful scene in which Siri and Civilai, who learned to love the cinema in Paris and will still sit through anything shown on a movie screen (even titles like “The Benefits of Oiling Your Weapon”), attend the politically expedient version of a Bruce Lee film. At the front of the theater sit three people with scripts. They speak all the dialogue, even in moments when Mr. Lee is not moving his lips. Only in this part of the world does Mr. Lee taunt a rival this way: “So, it’s just you and me. Me, the representative of the honest people of the land. You, a capitalist who would gladly sell the soil beneath our feet to the foreign devils.” +++

“The plot of “Anarchy and Old Dogs” rambles breezily among settings like this theater, the wedding-cake castle of a vanished prince, rural parts of the country where a coroner is paid in fish, and a refugee camp across the Mekhong River in Thailand. It is to this last place that two of Siri’s sidekicks venture to learn more about the counterrevolutionary scheming. But everywhere Mr. Cotterill’s characters go, they maintain a wry, seasoned, offhand style that has been the secret weapon of this unexpectedly blithe and charming series. The earlier books, which contribute greatly to the full enjoyment of this one, are “The Coroner’s Lunch,” “Thirty-Three Teeth” and “Disco for the Departed.” The irreverence of those titles nicely reflects the books’ spirit. “Look at you,” says Siri’s plump young nurse, Dtui. “Older than Angkor Wat, up all night boozing, and you still look as frisky as a prawn on a hot plate. What’s your secret?” Whatever it is, it gets him through “Anarchy and Old Dogs” in style. And it leaves him poised for a whole new kind of old dog’s adventure. ***

Book: “Anarchy and Old Dogs” by Colin Cotterill (272 pages. Soho Press, 2007)

Lao Travel Literature

In a review of “ Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos”by Christopher Kremmer, Dianne Dempsey wrote in The Age, "Now this is what I call a travel book: a journey of exploration in the jungles of Laos, searching for the lost royal family, which disappeared when the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao toppled the US-backed monarchy in 1975. Until now, it appears that nobody much cared what happened to this particular royal family or thought there was political mileage to be gained in discovering its fate. When Kremmer first started exploring Laos on occasional leave from his job as a newspaper correspondent in Vietnam, he became fascinated by the beauty and history of the former royal palace in Luang Prabang. When he describes it as ‘‘the still eye in the typhoon of Indochina’s history’, you know you are with a writer who not only appreciates the ethos of the country he is exploring, but who also has the words to express that appreciation. [Source: Dianne Dempsey, The Age, October 4, 2003 ++]

“He first wrote about his sojourns into Laos in Stalking the Elephant Kings, a book that ended with a failed quest. His search for the truth of the fate of the Lao royal family was originally met with obfuscation and officials who were "armed with rubber stamps". After publication of the book, however, he was put in touch with a former colonel of the Royal Lao Armed Forces, Khamphan Thammakhanty, who told Kremmer what he knew: he was there in the camp, in the remote province of Houaphen, where the royal family was kept secretly for several years, until one by one they died of hunger and neglect and a final defeat of the spirit. While a tough old journo such as Kremmer wouldn’t dream of casting himself as Marlow in Heart of Darkness, (but) for me it was hard to resist the image. ++

Books: “ Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos”by Christopher Kremmer (2003); “Stalking The Elephant Kings” by Christopher Kremmer

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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