Living with Karma and the Dao, by Xavier McCormack

In Laos and Cambodia, Karma has a profound influence over countrymen and city goers. Karma is the spiritual principle of cause and effect where the intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. It is specifically found within the relationship between culture and religion. Culture is passed down through certain karma experiences and religion that explicitly possesses and controls the way Karma is directed. Buddhists also tend to carefully think before they act due to the fact that karma is the result of a person’s past efforts.

One example of how karma can affect a Buddhist’s life is a story that our guide Keasar told Sam and I. Keasar was at a family gathering of some sort for a Cambodian Holiday, when he realized that no one had given prayer, a blessing, or invitation to his brother who had just passed away. This mishap led to the sickness of his son the very next morning and continued to be sick for the rest of the week. Keasar believes that this was a result of karma from neglecting his brother. Luckily his brother forgave him after going to temple every day that week. Overall, this occurrence prompted Keasars new dedication to always respect and welcome the deceased during important events.

Another point Karma infers is that if you do good you live good. I remember San our temporary guide for Vientiane, Laos explained something that he as a Buddhist believed: “If someone, a loved one, does not matter… is in trouble or struggling in anyway, one must follow through with what one is doing. For if you live in the present moment and finish your duty with positive karma you will be rewarded in the future with positivity and virtue (what goes around comes around). One cannot help someone else in a different circumstance because then you would not be living in your own presence but someone else’s.” This equal balance of give and take is also similar to the Daoist belief, Yin Yang in that they both are ways in which people approach certain decisions with a given philosophy.

Yin Yang has this way of describing the universe and life as an equal balance of dark and light or good and bad. Also within this philosophy people tend to believe that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, very much like Newton’s 3rd Law; however, it is more in context if justifying reason. Just like karma where people justify their most righteous path with every decision they make. Overall, forcing people to become more aware in the present then think about the future.

Bamboo and Electricity, by Nina Damiecki

Laos has a mix of high and traditional technology. Laotian traditional technology includes baskets, bowls, fish traps, instruments, and toys all made of local bamboo. Although perhaps not considered advanced from a Western perspective, the traditional technology that is used by a significant portion of the population proves to be cleverly and intricately crafted as well as sophisticated. When viewing technology in Laos, a person must keep in mind how one’s view of technology is affected by culture. Westerners who are used to complex electronic technology are often blind to the ingenuity of the bamboo technology.

Economic globalism has impacted technology and Laotian culture in general. International entities such as China and Apple have introduced powerful high technological products – iPhones, trucks, buses, air conditioning, motor-cycles, computers, jet planes, malls filled with manufactured products, and power lines. A particularly profound image:  the juxtaposition of vivid green rice fields lined by brick and bamboo houses with that of a grey power plant that looked like massive metal silos. What specifically caught my eye were the Chinese characters 中国电 ( Middle Kingdom electric) that were painted in large font across the front. The complexity of high technology is overwhelming the Laotian culture. 

The Power of Transactions, by Sophie Griffin

The first transaction I made in Laos was exchanging money. I turned in one crisp hundred-dollar bill and received a stack of cash so thick that I had trouble closing my wallet. I saw this as a moment of inequity that has been furthered every time I buy something. Everything here is so incredibly cheap and I’m entering the country with the (mostly undisputed) heavyweight of currency. This skewed power dynamic makes it great to travel in Laos; it’s super inexpensive. But for the locals it’s different. I’m entering into an economic system and throwing it out of whack with my presence. Additionally, because everything is so cheap it somehow transfers a feeling of worthlessness to the products here. For example, the one item I’ve seen almost everywhere here is the Beerlao shirt. Beerlao is a deep part of Laotian national identity, yet these shirts immediately mark a tourist. These shirts are sold for cents on the dollar, in every color and at every market, to people who have no idea what the brand means. However, the people here seem so grateful for those three dollars they make on each shirt. This small exchange of money for product demonstrates Laos’ position in the world. It is a poor country that needs outside tourism to sustain itself. Today, no country is truly self-sufficient in the global economy, but Laos is especially reliant on others to make money and survive. As a result of this drastic inequity the people here have had to drastically alter much of their culture, including the ways their cities are set up, their occupations, their sensibilities, and their everyday way of life.

Angkor Wat, by Ranier Benard

Most people would agree that technology has played a fundamental role in the development of recent society and how it has benefitted global culture to some degree, but not many understand how technology can be a double-edged sword. I myself only came to understand the effect that technology can have on a society yesterday while our trip leader Carleton Schade and I explored the monumental masterpiece of Angkor Watt, and the mysterious of ruins of an ancient buddhist temple.
As we rattled ideas off of each other, along with the occasional mind-blowing-temple-ruin-fact, we began to realize that these structures were more than just ornate architecture; they acted as symbols of the unprecedented strength and prosperity of the ancient Cambodian culture.
After realizing how difficult it was for ancient Cambodians to construct monuments such as those we were exploring, we decided that their culture was much more advanced than we had originally believed.
Upon purchasing an informational guide book, our hypothesis was confirmed. The ancient Cambodians who laid out, designed, and built Angkor Watt were no Cro-Magnons. These legendary architects figured out ways to execute intricate structural designs, with hand-crafted tools that shouted “innovation” like none before.
Although our initial theory was proven correct, Carleton deepened our examination of the temples by asking the million dollar question, “If this civilization was so ‘advanced’ as everyone claims, then way did it collapse?”
Generally speaking, most people would just be satisfied with the simple Buddhist philosophy, “all good things must come to an end”, but not me.
He was asking a question that I knew I had an answer to. Carleton and I are men of science, not of philosophy. We needed facts.
But all of a sudden, it dawned upon me. The answer was so simple that I almost felt stupid. Even though I’d arrived at the answer, I took a second to figure out how I was going to phrase it.
“If a culture spends this much time, and energy, along with such a vast amount of resources building monuments like this, they couldn’t possibly have been prepared for any sorts of conflicts or wars. While the ancient Cambodians were developing cool ways to move rocks, their neighbors were developing combat technology.”
In all honesty I’d never thought of how technology can really make and/or break a society until today. I think that the modern society of today’s world can learn a lot from the mistakes that some of our ancestors made. We should be open-minded and willing to learn.

Encountering Laos, by Auggie Schultz


Lao culture can be deceiving. Upon arrival, it seemed as if I’d be able to easily observe the rich culture and traditions of Laos without my interference. As a tourist group, we wanted our presence to be minimal so we could gain perspective on the culture as it is and, hopefully, be enriched by a unique culture. However, that turned out to be more difficult than any of us anticipated


We quickly learned that one of the effects of economic globalism on the culture is that it changed the way many native Lao people interact with visitors – or perhaps choose not to interact at all. One of the most surprising and dispiriting sights I witnessed occurred in a restaurant in the capital city of Vientiane when a gang of Western tourists huddled around a television to watch Friends rather than be present and observant in their immediate surroundings. Mediation recurred during an alms-giving ceremony when tourists trained cameras on a procession of monks. To me, it is clear that capitalism is taking its toll on Lao culture. In my six days in their country, Lao people have been remarkably accommodating and hospitable. However, I’m afraid that’s one of the reasons I don’t feel that I’ve fully experienced Lao culture. At the ubiquitous night markets, hundreds of tourists crowd around Lao workers who help them pick the right pair of flowy elephant pants and “BeerLao” tee shirts. I can’t say I haven’t picked up a few of these items myself, but this is not what Lao culture is truly like.

There is no issue with Laos benefitting from the economic growth they gain from tourism and late capitalism, but as a white student from New York who wanted to experience the raw culture of Laos, I fear its culture and way of life might be compromised by these factors.



Welcome to “Being There and Time: A Holistic Exploration of Laos and Cambodia”

This intensive course transports students to Cambodia and Laos, immersing them in the cultural rhythms, religious practices, and spectacular nature of Southeast Asia. Against these ecstatic experiences, however, students confront five profoundly unsettling topics in both countries: societal collapse, ecological degradation, state-based violence, and accelerating consumerism. Students examine evidence of these five issues by visiting several sites, including the monumental Angkor Wat, the ancient province Luang Prabang, the Nam Kang and Mekong Rivers, the cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and rural outposts such as Vang Vieng. Through pre- and post-production guidance, students practice respectful documentation of their experiences at each site. Specifically, students create a body of individual and collaborative work that emphasizes bearing witness and eschews expensive, mediating technology that reifies traditional tourism. A centerpiece of the course is the student-produced “Micro Script.” Based upon landmark methods of documentation pioneered by writer Robert Walser and expanded by anthropologist Michael Taussig, Micro Scripts encompass small, humble gestures toward documenting a place, time, artifact, or culture. A photography-based Micro Script of Cambodia, for instance, might include only close-ups of citizens’ left hands, considered the dirtiest, most unusable part of the human body in this culture. Their diminutive size underscores an observer’s nascent, necessarily incomplete understanding of the environments they visit. By documenting small-scale details, students practice keen observance of specific customs, feelings, and beliefs, rather than the breathless acquisition and appropriation that marks contemporary, capitalist-based tourism. Each student’s Micro Script is mindfully curated and constructed by trip’s end. By the culmination of this course, students gain a skill fundamental to becoming global citizens: being present. This highly challenging, rewarding state allows students to serve as conduits for particular histories, cultures, and environments in the future.