Luang Prabang, Laos. Dead or Alive?

A dry season bamboo bridge from the world heritage protected part of town across the Nam Khan river (a Mekong tributary) to the rest of town.

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city.  It’s protected as an UNESCO world heritage site. The city is dotted in adorable French colonial architecture and French style and riverfront cafes.  There are seventy temples (known as wats) all over.  The local store owners and many others have collaborated to set up fair trade preservation of many of the local handicrafts and products.  It is a wonderful example of how tourism can help the preservation of what was a culture slowly losing its heritage to modern poverty.  Yet it has a dark side as well.  Because no new buildings can be built, luxury hotels and restaurants have had to get creative to open up here.  A local joke goes like this, “Amantaka converted a prison and Alila renovated a hospital.  What’s next, a cemetary?”  Much like regentrification in many urban centers, there are people moving in to make the place nicer than the crumbling buildings that stood here.  Just like regentrification, many locals are getting displaced and this will become a city of hotels, guesthouses and tourists.

French colonial style houses in the sunset.

Laos is supposed to be the most laid back of the Southeast Asian countries.  It is also fairly cheap, and still is in most of the countryside.  However here, in what is quickly becoming a tourist mecca, prices are rising at high rates.  I get asked multiple times a day if I want a tuk tuk or boat ride to popular tourist destinations.  In uncharacteristic moves, some of them keep bothering you after you say no.  That’s not supposed to be very common at all here.

The temple next to the royal palace turned national museum. Temples in the region like to gild everything.

One of the prime sights in Luang Prabang is the early morning/dawn procession of monks collecting alms.  Monks are only allowed to have a few posessions (a robe, a toothpick, their alms bowl, and a razor I believe) and walk around in the morning to collect food.  Locals give the monks the best food they can to gain merits.  There are many rules for this, you should not disturb the procession, you should be lower than the monks, and generally be respectful.  Alas, many tourists ignore the many signs around town with instructions and stand in monks faces using cameras with flash in the darkness.  Even worse, tourists are advised to only participate if this is a meaningful Buddhist activity to them.  However many people ignore this and buy food from opportunistic vendors nearby who sell them rotten or stale rice and bananas.  The monks have talked of stopping the practice being they’ve gotten sick from tourists participating.  The government would not allow it and said they would send out laypeople in saffron robes if necessary.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Although it was interesting to watch, I’m glad I hoofed it over to the south end of the morning market to watch locals give their alms.  Watching tourists give bad food and stand flashing cameras in the monks faces just made me sad.  You can see the difference as the monks slowly walk by the locals and almost run by the tourists trying to give them food.  Really, I think I enjoyed wandering around later watching monks walking to school, holding hands, and smiling as much as I enjoyed their morning ritual.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see the morning ritual, it felt like a zoo.  I was watching more tourist bad behavior than monks.

Tourism has not destroyed everything.  The morning market is still mostly full of locals doing their shopping or getting their breakfast.  Tourism has also allowed many outdoor outfits to spring up to protect elephants.  This is the land of a million elephants and they often lead harsh lives as logging beasts.  Now they also have an option to retire to be or always be ridden by giddy tourists.  The kids here study English in the hopes of joining the lucrative industry.  About one in ten people in Laos is involved in the tourism industry.  The only other production appears to be logging.  I have not been able to see a sunrise or sunset and the sky is constantly foggy from the burning involved with logging and farming.

The French did not just leave architecture. There is a strong gallic influence in the food as visible in the many fancy restaurants and cafes. There is excellent coffee and baguettes all over town.

I am conflicted to say you should come.  This is a beautiful place that must be experienced and cannot be captured in a picture.  Yet I haven’t seen this many SLR cameras since I left San Francisco.  I will say if you want to come, to come soon.  I can’t imagine this development of tourism will be sustainable and the number of guesthouses has just about doubled ever year.  As this old New York Times article concludes:

“The paradox is that Unesco gives out the Heritage Site label partly to reduce poverty, but reducing poverty is reducing heritage,” Mr. Rampon said. “If you want to preserve heritage, you must keep poverty.”

So has tourism made this city more dead or alive?  I’m not sure, but I know that you cannot invite tourism and not expect some sort of impact on your local culture.

1 comment
  1. Jenn said:

    that new york times article quote is interesting. but preserving poverty for the sake of preserving heritage may be valiant from a cultural and anthropological perspective, but at the sacrifice of opportunity for locals and their younger generation. very difficult situation.

    perry says that he visited cancun in the 70s when it was completely undeveloped and stunning. and someone told him that they were soon to build it as a tourist destination–which was well underway by the 80s. and we know what it’s like today. and yet, what would the local economy be like without the tourism?

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