Abstract

This article approaches notions of a good life in Laos via the imaginary of the bangbot  (literally: “hidden in the shade,” i.e., “invisible”), a benevolent forest spirit of high moral integrity. The bangbot live in observance of the monastic precepts of Lao Buddhism deep in the jungle, far from human settlements, tying morality to undisturbed, remote forests. The article argues that this connection of morality with deep forest enables criticism and narratives about the good life at a time when “turning land into capital” is materializing in rapid deforestation. We suggest that the potential of this imaginary for socioecological criticism and alternative visions depends on social structure and historical context. While bangbot were instrumental in violent anti-colonial revolt, lending political legitimacy to rural ethnic elites, in today's context of frontier plunder vs. conservation, they are tamed to lend legitimacy to emerging urban milieus with a socioecological orientation. Thus the cultural, sociological, and ecological dynamics of Lao's late socialism are entangled in the spirit-figure of the bangbot.

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