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    Laos Gears Up for ASEAN Summit Challenge

    Delegates from across Asia are beginning to gather in the small, landlocked nation of Laos to prepare for next week's annual summit of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

    Days before Laos is to host the largest international event in its history, workers are putting final touches on Vientiane's new convention center. It is a vast building of steel and concrete boasting a main hall the size of a football field and also featuring movie theaters, a bowling alley, and karaoke bar.

    A few kilometers away, on the banks of the Mekong River, the pastel colored Don Cham Palace hotel has just opened for business. The 14-story facility is the tallest building in the country and dominates the skyline of this tranquil capital of 500,000 people.

    The city is also undergoing a facelift. Monuments and public buildings have been repainted and decorated with strings of colored lights. Along the main streets, shops and homes have been painted and cleaned.

    As the summit approaches, security is steadily tightening. There are periodic spot checks of motorists and the streets are virtually deserted after dark. Three-wheeled taxis, called tuk-tuks, and trucks have been banned from the city center. When the summit begins all private vehicles without passes will be banned.

    For Laos and its leaders, the summit represents a major step out of the isolation caused by decades of war and revolutionary upheaval.

    The director of the government's media department, Yong Chanthalangsy, says that this summit will help open up the country, which joined ASEAN only five-years ago.

    "This is a golden opportunity for Laos to train, on the job, our people, to expose them to such a big international event and I think this is the most important impact that we expect to have from this summit," said Yong Chanthalangsy.

    Mr. Yong notes that ASEAN's 10 leaders will be meeting with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India and, for the first time, Australia and New Zealand.

    Free trade and investment are to figure prominently at the meeting, which begins with a senior official meeting on Thursday. But security, disease outbreaks and political reform in Burma and unrest in southern Thailand also are expected to be discussed formally and informally before the leaders adjourn Tuesday.

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