Warren Mayes is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology here at the ANU. In this short piece he reflects on a place that has no place:

The past decade has seen a flurry of (European) academic literature on a place located on the East bank of the Mekong (northeast of Thailand, south of China, north of Cambodia and west of Vietnam) somewhat formally known as Laos. A great deal of this literature has tangoed with the problem of the apparent arbitrariness of Laos as a colonial backwater turned post-revolutionary developmental state. Much of it has stumbled past touristic descriptions about the ‘traditional culture’ and ‘laid back character’ of the people who live there. Some of it has even noted that the people who do live there have not had much of an occasion to say anything about themselves to the world. Indeed, the world still keeps forgetting them as well. Yet another academic book on ‘South East Asia’ (with an unremarkable and unmemorable title) has been published containing chapters for each country in the region except this one. Given a little prompting, even the most diplomatic of the country’s neighbours would admit they know little about it. This country has a government and a population and as much of a hegemonic right as Thailand or Cambodia or Burma or any other ‘nation’ in the region to forget its own internal complexities and be called a place. But what it seems to be missing is an authoritative imaginary associated with it, the kind of image that gets students forming reading groups and politicians forming axes (of good as well as evil). Laos lacks the image of brilliant diplomacy and commanding admiration associated with the Thai King. It lacks the celebrity-enhanced (Angelina Jolie lips) appeal against the Cambodian landmine image. It lacks the political intrigue and moral inspiration (and intelligent beauty) of the house-arrested Burmese democrat image. Yet political intrigue, royalty and hot lips have all made their mark on this place at one time or another in the recent past. It is perhaps too much for one lonely student of Laos to ask when this place will start to become imagined with all the contention and distortion that all the other places are. But there is hope (at least for those who don’t bask in the ‘traditional cultures should stay hidden and therefore pure’ school of thought for the guilty of conscience). New access to do research in the country and a growing body of literature to build on make Laos the new frontier for the image makers. There are even a few students of Laos beginning to emerge ‘from’ Laos. It would be great if the details of the image were at least partially up to them. For now, the more people (be they supposedly hegemonic Westerners who haven’t noticed China or supposedly radically free post-colonials, who also haven’t noticed China) willing to call themselves students of this place that (still) has no place, the better.”