A delicate balancing act

Commercialisation may be setting in, but Luang Prabang has lost none of its common touch and heritage

Published: 2/12/2010 at 12:00 AM

Sitting at the confluence of Mekong and Khan rivers Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, is popular among tourists. Some of them travel there regularly as if on pilgrimage to its gleaming temples, others for its rustic lifestyle, friendly local people and a glimpse of French architecture now crumbling, dating back to its colonial past.

This pier on the Mekong River, the lifeline of Lao people, presents a view to some of the most scenic landscapes in Luang Prabang.

Such has been the influx of tourists since 1995 when Unesco declared entire Luang Prabang a World Heritage town that the former capital today finds itself caught between change spawned by the influx of tourists and at the same time take steps to preserve its heritage.

My third foray there in five years was primarily to ascertain the extent of that change, and as I winged into the ”Land of a Million Elephants”, old memories came flooding back, and while not much of it was in evidence at the airport, there was plenty thereafter to suggest Luang Prabang had changed fairly substantially.

The information desk at the arrival lounge only provided brochures on hotel accommodation, but little else about tourist spots around town, except for a huge advertisement board that invited tourists to attend the annual Luang Prabang Ethnic Cultural Festival it hosted Oct 29-31.

But driving from the airport to downtown I noticed new guesthouses and hotels. Boutique-style hotels and taverns with views to the Mekong River that had looked run-down on my previous visit, had been given a facelift with a fresh coat of paint to look chic, but room rates had tripled from a few hundred to nothing short of 1,500 baht per night, thanks to the rising tourist traffic.

Temples and old riverside communities have also tried to cash in, with the former charging visitors 10 baht entrance fees. The money thus collected is used for the upkeep and maintenance of tourist spots. One other sign of this rise in the income of local people was that more households now had satellite dish.

However, the tourist dollars are not evenly distributed because a majority of the local people still mired in poverty need to work dawn to dusk to make ends meet.

And signs of commercialisation are everywhere, including at the alms-offering that is now an important fixture on the tourist itinerary. Every morning monks from some 30 temples in and around Luang Prabang converge on Sisavangvong Road to accept food.

I watched the ceremony from a point the monks file past to enter neighbourhoods where people stand waiting in lines to put food in their bowls. I saw tourists jostling for position to capture the moment on camera. Clad in bright saffron robes with one arm around the bowl, they opened the lid with the other hand for people to put food in them. It was an exotic sight not just for Western tourists but Asians as well. But the ceremony was marred by shouts of vendors more keen on selling food items to tourists than observing the solemnity of the occasion.

”One dollar, one dollar,” they yelled, flogging sticky rice which tourists bought and offered as alms to monks. A rather unsettling development, to say the least, if you are a repeat visitor.

But this shouldn’t be a distraction or something to be wary of because the local people have lost none of their touch for friendliness and warm hospitality. The rustic ambience of yesteryear can still be felt at its open-air markets, while Unesco guidelines on renovation and new constructions are more or less an insurance that Luang Prabang’s centuries old buildings and temples will remain poignant reminders of the town’s place in Laos’ history.

Most of the town area in Luang Prabang can be explored on foot, or on the local ‘Jumbo’ which is a motorised three-wheeler with eight seats, very convenient for group sightseeing tours, and particularly so when travelling outside town. But bargain hard when hiring one. Motorcycles and bicycles can also be rented by the day.

Apart from kip, the local currency, most outlets readily accept the US dollar and Thai baht. French and English is also spoken in Luang Prabang.

– Accommodation: Rooms at boutique hotels and guesthouses fronting the Mekong River go for 1,500 baht per night, while cheaper accommodation – 500-800 baht a night – are available in less scenic parts of town.

*By Air: Luang Prabang is served by Lao Airlines( http://www.laoairlines.com) and Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com).

One of many fishing villages that welcome visitors to experience their rustic way of life.

Some 200 metres from Wat Long Khun is the cave Sakarine, three storeys deep, but ventilation inside is poor which explains why it fails to get a mention in tourist brochures. Enshrined here are Buddha images from last century. People with breathing problems better not venture below the second level.

Despite rapid commercialisation, Luang Prabang still offers a great cultural experience. The building (left), part of the town’s heritage, has several souvenir shops.

When not farming or fishing, the residents of Ban Chan make pottery from clay sourced from the river—flower pots, vases, urns and other items of all shapes and sizes. When we arrived all the residents were attending a function at the village temple, but one of them, Deuan, was kind enough to show us around and even gave us a demonstration of pottery-making. Tourists, too, can try their hands making them.

Walking up the flight of stairs from the pier in Luang Prabang you arrive at Wat Long Khun, built over a 1,000 years ago but renovated several times since, the most recent being in 1995. In the past the temple was a retreat for kings before their coronation. It is best admired for its murals and portico.

Strolling around town you will come across small communities, like this one, which remain relatively untouched by influx of tourists. Walking this neighbourhood one evening, we spotted men folks playing cards while their family members went about daily chores at a leisurely pace. Tourism has spawned change in many ways, but the people of Luang Prabang are determined to protect their culture and traditions with their heart and soul.

Built in 1988, Phra That Khong Santi Chedi sits on a hill offering breathtaking views of Luang Prabang. Paintings inside temple walls are redolent with teachings of Buddha urging worshippers to follow the path of righteousness in life.

These little girls of Ban Chan are delighted posing for the camera.

The village of Zang Khong is famous for ‘sa’ paper and products made thereof. Visitors are given a demonstration of how ‘sa’ paper is made, using bark of the mulberry tree, stripped from young branches and boiled until it turns soft. The bark is then thrashed and thrown into large concrete vats where it is stirred until flakes rise to the surface. These flakes are lifted out with screens on wood frames. The flakes settle and congeal on the screen while the water runs through. The screens are then left to dry in sunlight, after which finished paper is peeled by hand from the screens.

Noted for durability, traditionally, Buddhist scripts were written on ‘sa’ paper and used to make fans, umbrellas, and as temple decorations during festivals. Today it has wider application, both for domestic use and industrial purposes, such as making lamps, wallpaper, greeting cards and paper napkins.

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