UnHappy Laos

A man who is wise and kind has disappeared and I am sad.

I don’t really know what else to write, but there is nothing else that I can do.


Sombath Somphone and I first met briefly in 2008. I’m sure that he doesn’t remember that meeting but he told me about PADETC – the community development organization that he had started and of which he was then Director – and I decided that if I ever had the opportunity to come back to Laos I wanted to connect with him and with PADETC. At that point I was unaware of Sombath’s long background of promoting happiness in development, but I made contact again when I returned to Laos at the end of 2010. We connected over a couple of long and inspiring conversations about happiness, particular after we discovered a common love of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and of Plum Village.

I started to work more closely with Sombath in December 2011 when we collaborated to show the international documentary “Happy” to as wide a Lao audience as possible. Then, in a quick conversation in February 2012, the idea for “Happy Laos” was born and a piece of work that took up a significant amount of my last 6 months in Laos was begun.

I have talked about Happy Laos at length on here, but only in terms of trying to persuade you to part with your cash. I never actually shared the final short film, which was very remiss of me. So, here it is. Please watch it and pay particular attention to the gentle mannered grey-haired ‘happiness advocate’ who talks about (among other things) how we need to stop looking outside ourselves to find happiness.


We (I hope I can talk on behalf of the many people who were involved) are very proud of the finished short film which encourages Lao people to think and talk about the things that truly make them happy.  Maybe I’ll write more about this another time; everything is interconnected, but this is a post about Sombath.

I left Laos at the end of October, spent a wonderful month in Thailand studying yoga, and came back to Scotland at the beginning of December.  Then on Sunday 16th December I heard that Sombath had disappeared. I won’t retell the story, which is easily accessible in the international press, but instead offer links to two open letters written by Sombath’s niece, Somchit Phankham, and his wife, Shui Meng Ng and a link to the campaign to Find Sombath Somphone:




Sombath has now been missing for over a month with absolutely no word from whoever is holding him and no update on the promised government investigation into his disappearance.

There is so much else to be said and nothing else to be said.

I don’t want to speculate about motives or politics or implications because all of this is unknown and I am a very long way away. What I want to do is to focus on Sombath and to remember that a wise, kind, determined, gentle, sometimes infuriating, always inspiring man is missing. I keep wondering what advice he would give in this situation.

In May 2012 I interviewed Sombath for my research. As in all my research interviews I started by talking about research ethics and, in particular about how the interview was confidential. With a twinkle in his eye Sombath asked me why he would want his ideas to be confidential, requesting that I summarise everything that he would say so that he could widely share his views. I laughed. It was typical Sombath  – on the one hand it made perfect sense but on the other it felt in potentially messy conflict with the ethical guidelines that I’d signed up to in the UK. He flattered me by claiming that I (a native speaker) could write it in a way that was much clearer in English language than he. I muttered something non-committal and thought about the exchange several times over the next few months, but he never asked again.

In very different circumstances, I now come back to that interview transcript. I’ve talked to my supervisors and decided to share. Ethics are – or at least should be – about doing the right thing and the only right thing I can do just now is to add my own tiny voice to all the amazing people who are working to keep Sombath in the public eye and raise awareness of his work and philosophy. So I’ll finish this post with a (tidied but otherwise unchanged) extract from that interview and let him explain his view of happiness in his own words.

Sombath: People perceive that happiness is something magic, something superior, and therefore we need to look for the answer. but the answer is in everyday life…

Christina: It’s right in front of us?

S: It’s right in front of us – but we look through it.

C: How do you define happiness?

S: Well, people define poverty, right? People define stress. Happiness? …there is a baseline happiness which is having no poverty or no stress…but if you want to be REALLY happy…then there are many types of happiness. People tend to think only of sense happiness…tastes good, feels good, looks beautiful, is  good to your ears and so on. But these senses are reacting to something…you sense something and you have a perception of whether it’s true or not and that perception is a judgment which depends on your culture, your past experience, your age…you make a judgment about whether that’s good or not good…if it’s good then you want it. Taste spicy food? Wow…that’s good… but if you’re not used to hot food you might think it’s terrible!  These are the senses’ happiness and we can become addicted to these sensory happinesses. But they are temporary because your senses will never be the same…as you grow older what you used to eat is no longer good… when you were young your taste buds were more for sweet taste but as you grow older you enjoy bitter tastes. Things change…so  that is happiness but it is temporary happiness depending on your situation, what age you are, your relationships and so on.  It is happiness but it is superficial happiness… if we can go deeper than that, then we can find happiness that does not depend on the senses.

C: What does that deeper happiness depend on?

S: Oh yes, there is deeper level of happiness but it requires a lot of awareness that the senses are only temporary…if you look below the surface then you see something else below the waves for sure…

C: So in a sense the deeper happiness is in realising that the thing isn’t permanent, it is in the non-attachment, being able to let go?

S: It is in the non-attachment. But that doesn’t mean you should not enjoy your senses…just with awareness that they are temporary. Otherwise you attach to something that is good…you desire it…want more of it… but then there is also something painful that comes with that…because nothing is permanent. If you don’t know it is non-permanent, when someone says they loves you you say “ahh she’s gonna love me forever” right? But there’s no such thing as forever and then, if you don’t have awareness, it’s painful when you find out that’s not true…so your happiness caused you pain.

You should enjoy with awareness. This is not a pessimistic view but at the same time it’s not an optimistic view. There are good times there are bad times. If you can accept that then nothing really moves you.

C: How does that fit with PADETC and with development? Where do you see happiness should fit?

S: Well, I think this ability to understand things is very important. I keep stressing that we need to understand the present, learn from the past and based on these two things we should strategise for the future. But you know the future is always going to be changing, it will never be what you expect and you should not expect it to be the way you would like it to be.

And if we understand this when we work, we will not be too attached to the things that don’t work out because we will understand why they don’t work…but if something works we also should not be too excited about it but simply be aware of the conditions that makes it work. Those conditions will not be the same in every situation and, if you understand that, you will be continuously motivated to do things that are not to satisfy yourself, but really are for the common good…and that common good depends on all the conditions that surround the situation.

C: And that non-attachment maybe allows or opens up the possibility for things happening that don’t we don’t expect to happen, right?

S: Yes, and the deeper happiness comes in creating an environment or conditions where everyone can be happy. You will see the greater reward, when you see your fellow humans…your partners… really enjoying life…being very calm… and this will make you even more happy.

But you can become attached to doing good also too…if you are doing good without expecting anything in return that’s non-attachment.

C: Do you think that is why there is some resistance to the idea of happiness in the development world?

S: I think it’s because we are not used to think this way, you see it’s just perception, your mind is lured into accepting what it’s told, so it is important to train it to really analyse things, especially to analyse yourself. We are always judging things outside us, we have been trained to distract ourselves from the self with what is out there. But then the self becomes based on what is out there. But, out there, there is always change so we will never find rest. So it’s all about the mindset. If we only look outwards we are like rats on a wheel…

C:…and it’s really interesting what you say about that rat in the wheel could be an attachment to doing good… because it’s a very familiar idea to me that that rat in the wheel is a attachment to getting more money or having more things or having a good status….but attachment to doing good, to making the world how you want the world to be… that’s interesting….

S:.. yes that’s attachment, because you are going to be disappointed (laughs) for sure you are going to be disappointed.

C: What do you think is the connection between doing good and happiness?

S: I think doing good is really part of happiness because down deep if you feel that you are doing good you will be happy.

C: A distinction is often made, at least in western philosophy, between doing the right thing and doing the pleasurable thing…and one of the reasons I think that people are sometimes resistant to the concept of happiness is because they often connect it to doing the pleasurable thing rather than doing the right thing…

S: Yes! That’s because the west has focused too much on a shallow and individual version of sensory happiness. Happiness is about understanding how connected we are and how temporary everything is…about sharing good times and sharing the pain…it’s about giving…

C: (tentatively) it’s relational?

S: It’s all relational. It all depends on the particular conditions and connections.

C: Yes

S: If you do something to make another person happy it is likely that they will return the same kind of positive thing to you.

When the west talks about happiness it’s individual sensory happiness, it’s only one sense at a time but if you have two or three senses together…wow…you feel really high (laughs). But here actually, you know, like we said earlier, it’s just doing mundane things…but sharing them with other people and being satisfied with them. If you get greedy you have to continue to be greedier and greedier to be happy- it never ends.

C: So there’s an irony where you think that you are doing what you need to do to make you happy but actually what you are doing in keeping you stuck in a cycle?

S: Yes, we have the wrong path. We have the wrong path and that path is defined by our mind when we have no control over our mind. That is the case for 99.9% of the people.

C: And we are right back to the mindfulness again?

S: Yes!

As I was writing this post I received an email saying that from today (Friday 18th January) and then every Friday at 17.00 Laos time (10am UK time) until Sombath returns, there will be a worldwide meditation chain in which we peacefully channel our intentions, prayers and positive thoughts to Sombath and to those who hold him. Even if you have never meditated before and even if you can only spare a few moments I invite you to please join us.




“I would like to think of the intellectual life as a series of conversations involving different voices and idioms, including those of poetry and science, rather than as a project that might deliver us from the curse of Babel, imposing a ‘single character upon significant human speech’. Conversation is open ended. One might say it is aporetic, because difference is accepted as grist to the mill rather than argued away, and reason is ‘neither sovereign nor alone’.”

(“Excursions” by Jackson (2007:x) citing “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” by Oakenshott (1991:89) )

I like the idea of research as conversation; and indeed the process of social research is riddled with both literal and figurative conversational exchanges. I increasingly think of any impact that my research might have as new and informed contributions to a series of interconnected conversations about happiness – without any assumption of being able to provide a definitive answer.

Most formally, in order to successfully achieve my doctorate I need to demonstrate that my thesis contributes to an academic conversation about understandings of happiness across cultures – and I’m confident that it will – but right now, I feel a long way away from that goal.

In order to get there I will use the many conversations that make up my fieldwork; conversations that range from semi-structured interviews to long rambling chats to group discussions and activities to a few words in a chance encounter that make me think. These conversations have provided the stories that come together to form the data that I am currently organizing and reorganizing and reading and rereading. Through the process of analysis, I will coax these stories into meta-conversations with each other, inviting them to offer up themes and narratives which will enable me to ultimately transform them into a thesis.

(*panic sets in. better move on*)

But even before it becomes data, each conversation is an exchange, people talk to me and I talk to them; they make me think and maybe I make them think and maybe either one of us thinks about something that we have never thought about before or maybe one of us changes our views as a result of the interaction. If I were trying to do scientifically controlled research that might be a bad thing, but I’m not and I broadly think that this exchange is a good thing. I have repeatedly been thanked by interviewees and workshop participants who feel that they have had a new or rare opportunity to reflect upon their own happiness and upon the things that they think are important in their lives. I have always said that the work I’m interested in sits at the intersection between research and grassroots development work, and the acknowledgement that I hope that my research will have some small positive impact for the participants (and indeed for me) emphasizes this point. This is tricky – maybe researchers won’t like what I do because I’m not ‘detached’ enough and maybe community development workers won’t like what I do because it is often difficult to see the immediate benefits to people’s lives. I really ‘get’ both of those views – but I have come to accept that I relish intersections. They are fascinating and messy and require a high level of reflexivity, but they also offer wonderful opportunities for a creative exchange of ideas that might actually affect change.

I am also becoming increasingly aware that the very process of me being here in Vientiane, and having conversations about happiness, is having impacts that are not so directly related to a linear goal of completing my thesis. When I arrived in Vientiane I was amazed at the number of Non-Profit Associations (NPAs) that explicitly talked about happiness, and I have become interested in what they mean when they use the word and how they consider it in their work. But networking with NPAs and having conversations with development workers about happiness means that I’ve become one tiny cog in the complicated system(s) that I’m trying to understand. When I asked one Lao professional about whether the topic of happiness would be on the agendas for an important future meeting he said “we hope so, but that really depends on you” meaning that he wanted me to talk about my research and the importance of happiness at the meeting. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing but, again, it’s fascinating and it’s messy and it requires a high level of reflexivity.

The Happy Lao Project came out of one of these (for me) messy conversations and has the potential to open up many more conversations. I’m sure that when (if…) we complete the film I will use it to illustrate the context of happiness in Laos when I talk about my PhD – and I have passed the project by my supervisors and the university ethics committee. But it is also quite separate from my PhD. This is a community project of which I am one small part and which is made up of people who think that happiness is important and think that hearing what people have to say about happiness is important. It is about providing an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds all across Laos to enter, however briefly, an international conversation about happiness. It is about opening up spaces for people to reflect upon and have conversations about happiness; both the people who have been interviewed for the film but also the people who will see it and hopefully think about their own answers to the questions and the broader questions about how happiness links to development.


Honestly I hate asking for money and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that this was a genuinely good cause – and I am asking again. If you have already donated, thank you so much. The amount that we need to make this happen is really not that big and if everyone who read this post clicked on the link and donated $10 it would really make a difference.


Thank you for being a part of this conversations about happiness.

Lao Happy: a relevant diversion.

A long time ago on February 11th it was World Happy Day. To cut a long story short (and going back even further) in September 2011 I met Eiji Han Shimizu in Ubud, Bali, who had just finished traveling the world interviewing people about happiness and producing the internationally acclaimed documentary Happy. I was desperate to see the film and on February 11th they released it for one day only to be shown in 60 countries around the world. In Laos we showed it three times, to young people who have been involved in my research, to students and people working in civil society and to a group of interested ex-pats. At the first showing we stopped the film every five minutes and a couple of amazing translators explained what was going on – increasing the time from 1 hour + 15 minutes to nearly 2 hours – and it still held everyone’s attention right to the end.  After each showing there was animated discussion and debate about the nature of happiness.

After the day the conversations continued. In particular I talked to the inspirational happiness advocate Sombath Somphone , Director of PADETC, about how it was a shame that there was no Lao representation in the documentary. The seed of an idea to create a Lao Happy short film was planted. Several other lovely people got involved including Liena from Saoban, Sam from Sompanya and Ding from Doklao and a plan was born.

You can see more about our idea here:


The timing is important. In October 2012 Vientiene will host the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) which is a forum for civil society representatives from across the two continents. We believe that this film will provide an opportunity for people to consider what development should be about…and suggest the possibility that one of development’s ultimate goals might be happiness.

This is truly a community project with many partners and supporters in different organizations and locations and with a small core group of people with a particular interest in the topic who are coordinating the process. In the first stage, we asked individuals and organizations to submit footage from interviews with Lao people, in Lao language, about happiness and we now have many interviews from a wide range of different people in different locations across the country.

So now we need to put it all together. So far, time and energy have been generously donated on a voluntary basis by everyone involved in the project. However, we have now reached a point where we need a small amount of funding to edit the footage into a short film and to translate the interviews in order to ensure that the film is accessible for non-Lao speakers.  We believe that we have the footage to make a very interesting and useful short film which will be a valuable Lao language resource to stimulate discussion about issues such as happiness, development and poverty alleviation, where poverty is viewed as 3-dimensional; emotional and spiritual in addition to economic.

I hate asking for money but now I just have to take a deep breath and do it. Please click on the link below and consider giving us a bit of cash. Pretty please. The amount that we are trying to raise is absolutely achievable but it does require everyone who supports the idea to dig into their pockets and give even just a few dollars. I’m a big believer in opening up spaces for reflection and I really think that this film has the potential to do that about a subject that is close to my (and most people’s if we are honest) heart.


Thank you. If you feel so inclined I would also be grateful if you could share this campaign with anyone you know who thinks that happiness and development should go together.

And in my next post I will ruminate on how this project links with and diverges from my PhD process…

Tea and Teacups

A couple of months after I arrived in Vientiane in 2010 I was invited to a Teacher’s Day celebration at a school where I’d been doing a little bit of volunteer work. As part of the festivities all the teachers (myself included although I didn’t think of myself as a teacher) were given beautifully wrapped and ribbonned gifts. Although highly curious, as instructed I didn’t open the gift until I returned to my guesthouse room, where I discovered…… a box of baby milk formula.

I was bemused. But I berated my own ingratitude, reminding myself that baby milk formula would be valuable to many people in the world. I wondered if this gift had been chosen especially for me. It even occurred to me (yes, I am paranoid) that it was a heavily veiled hint from Lao friends keen to see me married with babies. In embarrassment, and feeling unable to ask the questions that I wanted to ask lest they cause offence, I stashed the baby milk formula under my bed and vowed to find somebody who could make good use of it.

Of course I forgot all about the formula until it was time for me to return to the UK a couple of months later. When I was packing up my room I wondered what to do with the unwanted gift. Something (maybe the subconscious learning of a couple of extra months in Laos) made me open up the box and the awareness dawned on me that there was no baby milk formula inside. Padded with newspaper balls were two teacups and saucers.

I was reminded of this a little while ago when, whilst discussing a forthcoming event in Vientiane, a Lao friend made a comment about the danger of people focusing too much on the cup and not enough on the tea. In other words many people will focus on how the event will be presented to the world rather than on the content of the meeting; on how it will look rather than on what can be learned.

It is easy to agree – and to extrapolate this idea to other daily situations which I encounter here in Laos. In particular I’m fascinated by how people working in projects take photos of everything that they do and how that photographic record often seems to become more important than whatever it was that actually happened. Sometimes it feels to me like this verges on dishonesty – like the photos and the reality don’t tell the same story.

But it also depends, of course, on who reads the story and how they read the story. I perceived a dissonance between the different layers of packaging and the content of my Teacher’s Day gift because I am not familiar with the practice of wrapping gifts in recycled packaging. The beautiful care and attention paid to packing the gift added a value and care to it that a hurriedly wrapped gift would just not have. Underneath that care there was a random functional box. Any Lao person (or anyone who had lived here long enough to receive a gift from a Lao person) would have known not to assume that what was written on the box was in the box, and would have immediately looked inside. To me, a newly arrived foreigner, the obvious was not obvious and the content of the gift was almost lost.

I’m just playing with two different teacup stories. I’m not suggesting that a Teacher’s Day gift is the same as a big event. I do think I’ve learned three things. The care with which something is packaged is important but doesn’t tell the whole story. Familiarity makes unhelpful assumptions less likely – I look back now and wonder how I was such an idiot – but I’m sure there are still many similar assumptions that I make every single day. You need some sort of teacup to have a cup of tea.

Och wheesht…

I’m writing this from Edinburgh.

As you may know, I had to come back to the UK. I won’t dwell on the details because it isn’t an altogether happy story, suffice to say that it is a tale of one lost (not by me) passport and ridiculous amounts of money unnecessarily spent, but no-one died or is seriously ill or (miraculously) ended up in prison.

This all feels like a cruel trick being played on me by some cruel-trick-player-in-the-sky. April, May and June were to be my last big push, my focus-on-the-fieldwork months but they have now been largely whipped away from me. There was little over a week between finding out I had to leave Laos (two days after my last blog post) and arriving in the UK. A week that was full of passports and lassaiz-passers and immigration officials and embassies and emergency travel documents and visas and incompetence and stress and tears. It felt like I had been violently ripped from one home and catapulted back to another home. A much colder home. And one, bizarrely, where I am hungry all the time.

Flying freaks me out at the best of times. I’m not scared of it, I just find it entirely unfathomable that when I get in the plane I’m in Bangkok and when I get out I’m in London. It should take more time to get half way around the world. And time refuses to play ball so frequently. It’s like I’ve been sucked into this giant time-warp that isn’t quite sure when to spit me out.  At different points over the last few weeks my mind has variously tricked me into thinking that it is 1987, 2006, 2007 and July 2012. I wandered around Bangkok and Edinburgh literally unsure of where or when I am.

I’m only back for a few weeks. It is enough time to see lots of people and feel vaguely guilty that I’m not really getting much work done, but not guilty enough to actually act on it in any real way except plodding along with transcribing interviews. In additional to seeing family and old friends, I have particularly enjoyed catching up with my academic peers who all have their own stories of PhD triumphs and disasters and everything in between.  When asked how my PhD is going I have repeatedly said that I feel like I have an enormous mound of data in front of me, but I have no idea how it will magically transform into a thesis. Contrary to my own sneaking suspicions, not one person (including either of my supervisors) has looked at me with disgust and suggested that I’ve been in Laos quite long enough and I should have a clear idea of what I’m going to write. This is a relief.

When I get back I’ve got to quickly and belatedly get through the final push of  interviews and group sessions and translations.  So I’m going to attempt to adhere to this particularly Scots take on a popular theme that caught my eye today. And then I can get on with the hard work of magical transformation.

Rice and High Spirits

A few weeks ago I was in a school doing a workshop on happiness. We were talking about things that make us happy and different sorts of happiness. After a conversation (that could have taken place in any country I’ve ever spent time in) about spending time with friends and playing on the internet and facebook and boyfriends and girlfriends that was peppered with teenage giggling and dominated by two or three apparently more extroverted class members at the back of the class, a young man sitting in the front row stuck up his hand.

Young man: Going to the temple makes me happy.

Me: Ok, great. Is that a different kind of happiness to when you are happy because you hang out with your friends?

Him: yes

Me: Can you describe the difference?

Him (after a long pause): It is more quiet.

Me (turning to the rest of the class): So maybe happiness can be noisy (like when you have fun with your friends) and quiet (like when you go to the temple). Do you agree?

Nods of assent. (Although I’m not naïve enough to think that means much.  Nods of assent at almost anything I say are the norm.)

Me: Which is more important? Quiet happiness or noisy happiness?

Young woman who had dominated previous conversation (without hesitation): Quiet happiness.


It’s an interesting distinction –  and one that I have made use of in conversations since – but actually, now that Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) is upon us again, not a straightforward one. For one thing going to the temples during Pi Mai Lao is definitely not quiet. As I described last year, car and truck loads of people move from temple to temple with bucketloads of perfumed water to ‘water’ the Buddha statues. Monks chant blessings into microphones (my beloved loudspeakers abound), children ‘shoot’ Buddha statues with waterguns, fortunes are told by picking numbered chopsticks (I will have a baby girl and travel to another country soon apparently), streetfood is sold and consumed, people scoop up the Buddha water to wet themselves and their relatives and some times complete strangers. Ideally – for the best luck – you are supposed to visit 9 temples, all of which are beautiful and unique but by number 9 are beginning to blend into one. The atmosphere is a, to my eye strange, mix of reverent and irreverent, joyful and dutiful, energetic and tired.


I visited the temples yesterday with the family of a young volunteer who has been helping me with my research. Before we set out to the temples, I was privileged enough to witness the young people in the family offering gifts of thanks to their elder relatives and asking forgiveness for their transgressions over the past year. The younger and older generations then tie baci strings around each other’s wrists to offer blessing and good luck for the coming year. It is a pretty serious ceremony but there was ample joy and humour apparent as people share laughter over the personalised blessings. Then we ate together.

One of my companions for the day – a  young Lao man with very good English –  explained to me that the word “baci” is a combination of now obsolete words for “rice” and for “high spirits”. I told him that I have heard several, wildly different explanations  about the meaning of baci ceremonies from different Lao people and asked him for clarification. Most written accounts talk about calling the 32 ‘kwan’ (usually translated as ‘souls’) that protect each person back to the body, but I have have asked several Lao young people what the ceremony means and never had this answer. He said that baci ceremonies mix Animist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions and that most people do not really understand what they are doing when they take part. I asked for clarification about the phrase “high spirits” (did he mean spirits as in ghosts or spirits as in mood?) and he said spirits inside you not outside you. He explained to me that during a baci ceremony people wish each other all good things (good health, good luck, good marriage, good work, good salary etc.) and that people ultimately wish all of these things because they want each other to have a happy heart. This is what he understands by the high spirit of the baci ceremony.

And then there is the rice of the baci ceremony. Although, albeit in a very brief online search today, I can’t find anything to support the idea that the word ‘ba’ means rice (if anyone has this information, please pass it my way) I don’t doubt it’s importance.  At one point in a full baci ceremony people throw uncooked rice to (as I’ve been told) demonstrate abundance, but it seems to me that the even more important rice of a baci ceremony is the rice (and accompanying dishes) eaten together afterwards. Eating together (most often with family but also with friends) comes up incredibly frequently when I ask young people here about the things that make them happy and, in Laos, eating together and eating rice together are (both linguistically and in practice) near inseparable.

So I come back to the noisy, quiet distinction of happiness and it doesn’t quite fit my experiences over the last few days. High spirits and eating together are really not quiet activities but they seem to fit into the quiet category of happinesses, especially when compared to the simultaneous partying and water-fighting taking place at the BeerLao stage down by the Mekong. This seems linked to my previous thinking about ‘fun’ and it crossed my mind that maybe it is simply a preference about what you enjoy, but I think the difference is more than that. I wonder whether a distinction between internally focused happiness and externally focused happiness works better? Maybe, but it is definitely not a clear distinction.

Six hours after the day’s festivities began, as we pour water over Buddhas at temple number nine, I turn to a young woman in my party and ask her how she is. She answers: “I’m tired but my heart is happy”. Without needing to understand it intellectually, I know (or at least I feel I know) exactly how she feels.

Peace and quiet?

Last week I wanted to get away from everything for a couple of days and went to an eco-lodge about 30km out of town on the banks of the Nam Ngum river. It is a beautiful setting with precisely nothing to do except to admire the view – which was exactly what I wanted. Except that we had chosen to go on International Women’s Day.

I may have previously mentioned that there are a couple of things that I don’t much like about living in Laos. One is mosquitos which, I accept, are to be expected and tolerated at a riverside ecolodge. The second is the ubiquitous speakers that accompany every Lao celebration and most commonly blare top volume dance music or Thai pop music – neither of which are exactly my favourite musical genre. It had not occurred to me that International Women’s Day is exactly such a celebration.

So my beautiful, peaceful getaway was party central. Teenagers from nearby villages drank Beer Lao and swam and listened to (in my opinion) bad music. Very Loudly.

Did I mention that I had a hangover and really needed to sleep? Or indeed that I can turn into an irrational monster when overtired?

So, after a frustrating early afternoon hour of trying to sleep, I stumbled along the path to the office and bumped into the owner of the lodge. I don’t think I was rude but I did say that I was frustrated that my experience was not meeting my expectations and that I was considering not staying because I might get a better night’s sleep in Vientiane. He suggested that the point of the lodge was to give tourists the opportunity to experience real rural Laos, and Lao people like to party. I said that I was paying $40 a night to get away from the city and get some peace. Then, credit to him, he asked that the speakers were turned down and it was quiet enough for me to get some sleep.

A couple of hours of sleep later I wondered down to the restaurant. Now, in the late afternoon, a large group of local young people (ironically mostly young men but I will save the politics of that for another conversation) are enjoying the day off work and/or school afforded to them by International Women’s Day. The music is back but at a (in my mind) respectful volume. The atmosphere is high-spirited. Small groups sit at tables drinking Beer Lao, talking and laughing. Others swim and lark about and relax on inner tubes on the river. I see that there is pressure to drink and a couple of times the high spirits over-balances into posturing but it is easily resolved within the group. Mostly what I observed is a group of young people relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and having fun.

And it made me think.

How different is this from the outraged complaints that I made a few months ago about young backpackers in Vang Vieng?

What should we do when happinesses come into conflict? In this particular situation, is the happiness of the person who paid to be there really more important that the person who lives there? Of course I don’t think that is true. But how are these happinesses interconnected?

Several times when I have told Lao people that I am studying happiness in Lao they have made a joke about how the thing that makes Lao people happy is Beer Lao. Then they usually laughed and were very keen to tell me that they were only joking. But I’m not so sure that it is entirely a joke. Drinking beer is not only about getting drunk, it can also be about having fun with friends and family (or indeed about both at the same time). Please note that I am not suggesting that drinking Beer Lao is the only way to have fun or indeed that drinking Beer Lao is always fun, but it occurs to me that fun has in some way come to be seen as the poor sibling of happiness. In the hierarchy of happiness fun could be seen as the soap opera and fulfillment or joy or finding meaning in life as the opera. People often talk about ‘real happiness’ and they are rarely referring to fun, indeed sometimes they are contrasting the lofty goal of real happiness with sensual pleasure.

These are philosophical questions that I will undoubtedly continue to grapple with. But what I thought about whilst watching that group of young people drinking, swimming, laughing and talking was that I wouldn’t like to have a life without fun. And that one person’s fun is another person’s hideous speaker.