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Bring luggage, but leave the other baggage behind
Apr 23, 08 | 1:58 am
Luang Prabang is a place that is close to my heart. Hence, when I read the headline, ‘Luang Prabang now just a replica of itself', I had to not only read it but digest it.
In the article in the IHT, Seth Mydans says that Luang Prabang today "displays the paradox of preservation, saved from modern development by packaging itself for tourists but in the process losing much of its character, authenticity and cultural significance".
In some ways, I agree with him - the Luang Prabang today is not the same Luang Prabang of 15 years ago when I first visited it. No place in the developing world should be, really - who would wish such a fate on any place?
Then, it was itself - no electricity, few tourists, a culture not preserved (preservation only comes in the picture when there is prospect of progress) but as it is, as it was.
Today, the town has become a tourist attraction in itself with most of the businesses there totally geared towards tourism - it cannot be helped; in a place like Laos, there is no other alternative income but tourism.
The World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1995 saved Luang Prabang in look and feel - small streets, small structures, little traffic - but, if the article is to be agreed with, that may have become the town's worst enemy.
It quotes Gilles Vautrin, a restaurant owner from France, as saying, "The city is being gentrified. It will be a museum city. It will be a hotel city. Maybe the tourists will like it, but it won't be the same Luang Prabang."
Indeed, what's the alternative? Imagine if there had been no UNESCO bestowment, what would have happened to Luang Prabang? Would all the small buildings have been destroyed? Would locals have moved out to seek employment? What kind of tourism would there have been?
The road of "what ifs" always leads nowhere so let's get back to the road Luang Prabang had to choose.
The article quotes a Lao artist as saying, "Now we see the safari. They come in buses. They look at the monks the same way as a monkey, a buffalo. It is theatre."
Over the years, I've visited many medieval towns and historical attractions in Europe and often, I've wondered too other than the shops, cafes and restaurants all catering to tourists, where's the authenticity and cultural significance?
Other than Windsor Castle, what is Windsor but a place of soggy fish and chips, bad coffee and tacky souvenirs? We go to Buckingham Palace and we gawp at the palace guards like they were show ponies in a circus.
I've walked up Mont St Michel, outside Paris, and I saw nothing but hordes of tourists fighting for space on the steps, in the cafes and within the castle to get a sneak glimpse at artifacts from a bygone era. I even saw two French families and their dogs fight over a table. "Your dog smells," one said. "You stink," said the other.
I've been to Carnac in Brittany, France, which is described as an ancient place of megaliths - France's answer to Stonehenge. As ancient and mysterious as they are, they are but a sideshow to the real reason the French and other tourists go there - the pseudo (to me, that is) beach lifestyle that Carnac offers.
And don't even get me started on Stonehenge which is probably the most over-hyped attraction in the UK, other than Brighton.
I've been to traditional market towns in south-west France and I've heard more British accents than I have French.
So back to Luang Prabang. I must confess I felt a bit queasy the last time I visited a year ago when I saw groups of tourists lining the streets fighting for space to feed alms to the monks and take photographs. It's a natural human instinct to shudder when you see something you've been brought up to believe as sacred become a public spectacle.
It's the same thing that goes on in hill tribe villages in Thailand where foreigners scramble to shoot natives in costumes.
I am as guilty of it as the next tourist. On beaches in France, I love to take photos of natives sunning themselves till they turn beetroot red. On ranches in Arizona, I love to take photos of cowboys line-dancing. There's something inherently paradoxical about men in big hats and heavy boots kicking their heels and mincing their steps.
In small towns in Switzerland or Germany, I look out for men dressed in leder hosen, playing accordions.
Indeed, isn't most tourism that is packaged and that somehow preserves an imagined way of life "theatre" in some form or other? It's the myth tourists buy into.
The article also suggests that Luang Prabang is more vulnerable because it does not have a single monument that draws - unlike Angkor Wat or Bagan or Windsor.
With this town, it's the whole thing - the look, feel and sense of it. It loses that, and it loses it.
I agree. It's the intangibles that make Luang Prabang so attractive to tourists - not one thing you can put your finger on but the sum of its many parts.
The river that flows past it, the surrounding landscapes, the sense of history of its location, the ancient capital of a once-great kingdom, the old villas, the small streets, the monks, the people ...
I don't think it was the poverty that defined Luang Prabang though, as another quote in the IHT article implied. "The paradox is that Unesco gives out the Heritage Site label partly to reduce poverty, but reducing poverty is reducing heritage. If you want to preserve heritage, you must keep poverty."
I don't see many heritage sites in Europe that are well-preserved but poor, do you? I think there is something inherently flawed in the thinking that to be authentic in Asia, there has to be poverty.
I remember an American friend of mine once asking me why I liked travelling to places like Laos. "Why do you want to go see how poor people live?"
When I first visited Luang Prabang, I did not see the poverty but felt the richness of a proud, gentle people who, of course like all of us, wanted a better life for their children.
I think it is the fact that Luang Prabang is the sum of its parts that will save it. But only if we travellers give it a chance, and don't go expecting it to fit into our own preset notions of the way it should be. Instead, just try seeing it with new eyes, each new visit.
Actually, that's the way we ought to travel anywhere.
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