Laos is a small country—roughly the size of Oregon—nested between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. The Mekong River flows from dramatic green mountains in the north, nurturing rice fields as it bends around the nation’s capital, Vientiane, before splitting in the south on its way to Vietnam’s Mekong delta. The nation’s communist government has only embraced international trade in the last twenty years; Laos is largely undeveloped and has a population under seven million (for comparison, Thailand’s population is sixty-eight million).
Despite being twelve time zones and 9,000 miles from North Carolina, our state has a strong and growing community of immigrants from Laos. Many Southeast Asians are choosing to move to southern states as a “second migration,” favoring the quality of life and familiar rural landscapes over urban centers in California or Minnesota.
This project chronicles how one family has remade Laos in Morganton, a small city of approximately 17,000 in western North Carolina. The Phapphaybouns began to leave their homeland following the takeover of Laos by the communist Pathet Lao party in 1975.
Many Americans are unaware of the covert U.S. military involvement in Laos. Between 1955–75, U.S. interventions included employing Hmong to fight against rising communist forces in what is sometimes called the “Secret War.” During the conflict, the U.S. military dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos—more than the amount dropped on Europe during World War II. These efforts failed. The United States withdrew in 1975, and a communist regime took power.
Toon Phapphayboun escaped her country’s new regime by canoeing and swimming across the Mekong River in 1980—by 2003, nearly the entire family was reunited in Morganton. Her family is now an anchor of a small community of roughly eighty Lao Loum (or Buddhist) first- and second-generation immigrants. The Lao of Morganton have adapted this place to reflect their identity and support cultural traditions from everyday cooking to sacred gatherings. By choosing to make Morganton their home, immigrants like the Phapphaybouns are actively shaping an evolving South.