Organized Panel Session
Since the founding of the Lao PDR, visions of progress have captivated the Lao state and its citizenry, even as efforts to implement these visions have often frustrated, stalled, and failed (High 2014). This panel tracks contemporary attempts to take "steps forward" (kaaw naa) in Laos, paying particular attention to the heterogeneous ways people imagine and work to achieve these steps. Based on research on upland societies of four different provinces, where the way forward is often treated as a transformation both geographic and temporal, the papers explore efforts to collapse and reinterpret this distance. We describe vehicular infrastructure in the shadow of the Nam Theun 2 Dam, where the dam has both opened and closed pathways to "development"; we share the story of a young Khmu girl, whose ambitions for a non-peasant life force her and her community to navigate between spirit healing and modern medicine; we explore how Katu women interpret, adopt, and disregard the state's attempts to transform their birth practices as a sign of the nation’s modernity; and we unpack how policies for promoting a polished multi-ethnic nation are adopted and adapted locally during ceremonies in a Tai village. Orienting around these different engagements with notions of progress, the papers together build the case that imaginations of the future in contemporary Laos do not only emanate from large-scale state projects; they also emerge along small paths, during village rituals, and in the most intimate of experiences.