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.


Xander said...

There are very similar arguments made about Taos and Santa Fe in my home state of New Mexico. Many local families are now priced out of living in town, as outsiders flood the market in search of 'colorful' New Mexican culture. Then again, as a result of that, they're both great cities for delicious and innovative food, and New Mexican food likely wouldn't have maintained such vibrancy were it not for outside interest. -X

a said...

You make a great point here about New Mexican food and culture. I purposely didn't say much about food in this post, but if we look at the restaurants I casually mentioned, they don't highlight the cuisine of Luang Prabang. They mostly offer western style coffee and pastries. I was obviously being selective, as with the influx of money and interest, a nearly lost cuisine was revived.

Robyn said...

Ugh, this post is a bit of a bummer. I was hoping, a, that you'd come back and say that the IHT article was completely off track. We last saw Luang Prabang in 1995 and have gone back and forth about whether to go back. Of course we will, but with lowered expectations, I suppose. Your earlier posts show that there's still stuff to explore in other, perhaps lesser visited parts of Laos.

Your post also nicely lights upon that (hypocritical?) search for 'untouched' or lesser touched, anyway, places to visit. For me it has less to do with how many other foreign faces you see than with how daily lives of the locals have been affected. Sumatra is still that place. That said, I would wish for more tourism to the island, because the locals are really suffering economically since tourism dropped off almost ten years ago. Is it a more 'real' place because it's largely impoverished? A question I have to admit I avoid thinking about.

I think there was a line in that IHT article, at the end, to the effect that to keep cultural authenticity requires keeping poverty. I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's certainly food for thought.

a said...

Yeah, sorry sbout this one. You must understand that I can be a bit of a downer about places like this. I maybe went a little bit far with my very short piece, but I thought it important to provide a counterpoint to the almost entirely positive narravtive that has developed around Luang Prabang.

That piece in the IHT is a bummer as well, but I don't agreee with everything it says. You're right, it does end on a questionable note, although that photo at the beginning says a lot more than words.

I met a couple of really great young men who were budding tour guides while there. One wanted help wrting his proposal to study tourism, in english. I was happy to talk with him for an hour. Another day we met a young man working in a textile shop, who was studying to become a tourguide as well. A night over drinks provided a lot of very interesting insight. What both of these men had was an immense amount of optimism for the future. You cannot argue with that.

anan said...

Hi, very nice pictures there :)
well, just wanted to say that Croissant d'or at Luang Prabang is not foreign owned, but Lao.
Except at Vientiane which is a joint-venture between french and lao entrepreneurs :)

a said...

Hey there anan
Thanks for pointing that out. Guess I was wrong about that one. There are quite a few joint ventures there, aren't there? Would be curious to know which places were foreign owned, Loa owned, and or a joint venture.

anan said...

My apologize about my previous comment, technically some shops are lao owned but with share holders and/or joint ventured :) But you are absolutely right ;)