|Luang Prabang: Fighting off the 'Lijiang Effect'.|
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Friday, 7th May 2010
Yeoh Siew Hoon revisits Luang Prabang and finds a place that's fighting to hold on to what makes it special and different.
There’s a joke going round in Luang Prabang that everything can become a hotel. Amantaka was the local hospital, Alila Hotels & Resorts is said to be converting the prison. “What’s next? The local cemetery?” goes the punchline.
The flippancy hides a poignancy however. In talking to me about Amantaka, a local businessman said, “We are very sad, everything is being turned over to tourism. Now our local hospital has been moved very far out of town. Luang Prabang isn’t what it used to be.”
I took what he said with a pinch of salt though. He has after all himself profited from tourism – he owns two villas by the Mekong river and he rents them out to tourists on extended stays.
But walking around Amantaka brought his words home to me. If I were a local, I could imagine being upset by it. The place was deserted when I walked in one afternoon. The grounds are huge. The lobby occupies one wing, the spa another and the gym another. Right at the back of the vast courtyard are the suites – about 20 of them.
A space that used to save lives now given over to pampering a handful of rich tourists.
Luang Prabang in danger of the "Lijang Effect"?
The staff who showed me around was absolutely charming, as the Laotians generally are. I am told rates start from US$600. I asked him if he was scared of ghosts. Like most Asians, Laos are respectful of spirits. “No,” he laughed. He is very proud of the hotel. “It is the best in Luang Prabang,” he said.
So on the one hand, an older Laotian who mourns for the past and on the other, a younger who looks forward to the future.
Of course, “Luang Prabang isn’t what it used to be”. Which place is, especially one which has been specifically carved up for tourism. The UNESCO World Heritage site status that it received in 1995 has been either a blessing or a curse, depending how you look at it, but what’s for sure is, it has changed the place.
There is talk – and fear – of the “Lijiang Effect”, that it could go the way of the UNESCO-listed Chinese city that looks and feels like Main Street, Disneyland – where everything seems, and is, staged for tourism.
Like all travellers who were there pre-UNESCO and then visited it a few times after that, I am nostalgic for the old days. When I first visited it, it had no electricity then. Now there’s wi-fi everywhere. It is the most connected place I’ve ever been in – so no escape from the digital world here anymore.
Street of Luang Prabang
And although everything in the main area is geared for tourism, as in Lijiang, there is one difference. There is visible pride among Laotians in their heritage and there are visible attempts by the private sector at least to protect that. You don’t feel the outright avarice that you sense in Lijiang.
In every café, shop and place where tourists gather, there are signs advising us how to be respectful of the “tak bat” – the morning alms ceremony with the monks. In high season, this early morning ritual can turn into a mob with tour operators booking the best seats for their clients, as though for a Rihanna concert.
The last time I woke up early enough for it, I stood way back and felt as though I was back at Rantau Abang, Malaysia’s East Coast, watching turtles lay eggs – an experience I swore never to repeat.
Higher end galleries selling local art and crafts make it a point to tell the story of how they are made and share the story with tourists. In Ock Pop Top (East Meets West), there are tags attached that tell you the name of the person who wove each item you buy.
The “Stay Another Day” initiative is an admirable attempt by the local community to not only give tourists reasons to stay longer but relate each attraction to the environment, culture and heritage.
The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Museum
I walked into the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Museum, a private, non-profit enterprise, which does another admirable job of telling the story of Laotian tribes. It was pitch dark the day I went and I had to use a torchlight to read most of the narrative.
The thunderstorm of the day before had plunged the town into darkness. It was appropriate that the rains came right after a day of Songkran festivities in which everyone was wet anyway. That night, Luang Prabang was lit by candles and lamps, bringing back memories of my first visit so long ago.
Perhaps it was because it was the tail end of the low season but I found Luang Prabang to be as lovely as the last time I visited. There were more backpacker-type travellers than group tourists – perhaps that’s why? The former are generally kinder to, and more respectful of, a destination than the latter, don’t you feel?
Yes, there is a sameness to the night market. “They are all selling the same thing,” observed Alpha Eldiansyah, newly-arrived manager of the Maison Souvannaphoum, a former prince’s residence converted into a hotel. “And sometimes they sit there all night and don’t sell a single thing. But they seem happy, they are always smiling.”
Those of us who live in urban areas, and whose lives are fuelled by commerce, will never understand this, I suppose.
Laos' vanishing traditional craft
I remember a story told me by an Asian expatriate living in Sri Lanka. On his visits to the market every morning, he would see a group of women sitting round, husking, grating and straining coconuts for their milk.
It was hard work, he said. So he decided to buy them a machine that would do all that. In the weeks following, he noticed a difference. The women were no longer gathered round their usual place and they weren’t their usual smiling selves.
“I realised then that by meaning to do good, I had broken up their circle and taken away the reason they came together. It wasn’t about the coconuts, it was about being together,” he said. So out went the machine and back came the women.
This is the sense I get from Luang Prabang – whether it’s made for tourism or not, you still feel the sense of community.
In the food stalls selling crunchy baguette sandwiches and crispy Mekong weed. In the night market cheap T-shirts and embroidered bed spreads. In the cafes selling fresh croissants and delicious crepes. In the temples where locals gather to offer their prayers.
To a first-time visitor, Luang Prabang has a lot to offer that’s different from anywhere else that’s easier to get to. After a couple of days, it dawns on you why it’s so different – there are no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no Pizza Hut. All those brand names that have made everywhere the same are absent.
Here, it’s pure Lao Arabica coffee, Beer Lao and Lao Lao. And long may it remain.
Photos courtesy of Yeoh Siew Hoon. "The Stay Another Day Initiative, " is organized by (or held at) Kopnoi Export Promotion Center (see photos).