Monday, April 14, 2008
A Few Words About Luang Prabang
It's always hard to approach a much hyped destination without having large expectations that need to be met in order to feel like something didn't add up. This is not the best place on the Internet to read gushing descriptions of the beautiful Luang Prabang. The royal sights, the many wats, the beautifully preserved colonial architecture, the great markets, and the beautiful rivers all make this UNESCO world heritage town beautiful indeed. These blessings certainly explain the hordes of tourists.
Hordes of tourists mean piles of tourist dollars. Luang Prabang certainly has benefited from the influx of foreign visitors. This influx of foreign visitors has been followed closely by an influx of young men (and women?) from the provinces to get a piece of the action.
It's always hard to decide how and where to spend your money in a place like this. Luang Prabang struck me at how gentrified it seemed. It was weird how many favorite tourist haunts are simply foreign owned: Joma Cafe, Scandinavian Bakery, Croissant d'or, and most other cafes and bakeries on the main drag are owned by foreigners. It is true that these places normally employ locals, but this brings up something that always troubles me. Many travelers like to think that their visiting a place helps the local population have a better life and a brighter future. How far does this dream become a reality when the jobs available for the locals is in the service industry? A lot but not all of the big dollars often end up in the pockets of outsiders.
I'm not a big fan of a lot of travel writing that tells half truths and paints overly flattering portraits of places. International travel has really exploded in the last number of years. What was once a pursuit of the very rich or at least the very interested, has become an everyday commodity. A place gets hot, gets flooded, and then discarded when it is no longer considered hip enough, or undiscovered enough. A new mecca for the "undiscovered", "unspoiled" and or "authentic" experiences usually materializes.
I want to be perfectly clear here: This is not to suggest that I am perfect and that somehow I was able to rise above these issues and I look down upon my fellow travellers with an air of superiority. I am as guilty as the next and certainly suffer from a troubled mind about this. What I do want to point out is that in the last couple of years I have found it harder and harder to be a visitor and a conspicuous consumer in the developing world.
Note: You are reading a truncated post that I was writing and rewriting about Luang Prabang when I was alerted to today's International Herald Tribune article about Luang Prabang. It more or less sums up some of the ideas I wrestled with while there. It says things more eloquently and heartbreaking than I ever could. This is essential reading, so consider it your duty to read it.
I'll try and say something about food in my next post. Sorry about that.