Tourism Threatens Fragile Beauty of Former Lao Royal Capital

LUANG PRABANG, Laos ~ World heritage status has turned the former Lao capital from a ghost town into a tourism hub, but too much of a good thing could soon prove the kiss of death, say experts and residents.

In recent years, a trickle of backpackers has turned into a flood of tourists coming to the sleepy town of glistening Buddhist temples and palm-shaded French colonial mansions sitting pretty on a Mekong river peninsula.

Camera-toting visitors now follow saffron-robed monks on their morning alms rounds and foreigners are transforming quiet neighborhoods into rows of cafes and hotels, say those who worry about the town’s fragile beauty.

“People are surprised at the pace of change,” said Francis Engelmann, a former UNESCO advisor and current resident of Luang Prabang. “There are more cars; there is more noise. Behind my house three new guesthouses are going up.”

The 700-year-old town, seen as the jewel of ancient Lao heritage, threatens to turn into “a mono-industry where everything depends on tourism,” he warned.

By the standards of many Asian tourist sites, Luang Prabang retains much of the tranquil charm that led the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to list it as a world heritage site in 1995.

Nestled below lush hills between the Mekong and Khan rivers, it was once the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom, the Land of One Million Elephants, and remained the spiritual and religious centre of Laos in the centuries since.

The town’s fortunes took a dive during the Vietnam War, when US forces fought communist troops in Laos, and in the post-war years from 1975, when the new socialist regime shuttered most of the country’s Buddhist temples.

From the late 1980s a few hundred intrepid travelers per year returned to Luang Prabang as Laos reopened to the outside world, but the years of neglect had taken a heavy toll on Luang Prabang’s former royal beauty.

“When I first came here in 1988-89, it was a ghost town,” said Engelmann.

“There were only old people and it was a sad place, like a town after an epidemic. Everything was closed and roofs were caving in. The young people were all in Vientiane. Now they have all come back.”

World heritage status has placed Luang Prabang firmly on Indochina’s tourism map, alongside UNESCO-listed sites such as the Angkor Wat temples of Cambodia and the karst islands of Halong Bay in Vietnam.

The UN body imposed strict preservation guidelines, which banned demolitions within the heritage zone and mandated the use of local materials for repairs, overseen by the local Heritage House foundation.

In 2000 UNESCO launched the Monk Project, in which elder craftsmen passed on skills such as wood-carving, mural painting and lacquerwork to young Buddhist monks to maintain the authenticity of temples here and across Laos.

By 2003, the tourism boom was bringing 600,000 visitors a year, says UNESCO, as guesthouses, riverside restaurants and handicraft shops mushroomed, increasing the strain on the town’s electricity, water, sewage and garbage services.

The UN cultural agency warned in a 2004 report that development pressure had placed “critical stress on both the environment and the historic cultural resources of Luang Prabang and threatens to overwhelm them.”

It warned of a future where “billboards dominate the landscape, where the sound of tour buses drowns out the soft temple prayers and where the town’s residents are reduced to the roles of bit-players in a cultural theme park.”

“Today business is good,” said Gilles Vautrin, a seven-year resident and owner of several restaurants here. “But the quality of life is not so nice anymore. It’s faster and faster and there is more noise.”

Vautrin said tourists wearing shorts now crowd out many of the 34 temples that are the core of the town’s spiritual heritage and that have always been financed by the Lao residents, some of whom are now leaving town.

“It’s become a falang city,” he said, using the Lao word for foreigner.

“Many falangs rent houses for 30 years, but who’s going to give food to the monks now? The alms-giving round is more like a show, like theatre. The Lao people don’t say anything, but I think they don’t like it.”

He added: “Now the problem is the mass tourism. We’re worried about the impact of large Chinese tour groups coming down the Mekong River.

“I think one day the monks will disappear to another retreat, and then we’ll lose a lot. The spirit of the town will disappear.”

Engelmann agreed that tourism has been a double-edged sword here.

“If you ask businessmen, they’ll say it’s fuelling business,” he said.

“If you ask environmentalists, they’ll say it’s destructive. If you ask locals, they may say it’s bringing jobs, but also driving up prices.”

UNESCO listing, he said, “has been good for the ‘hardware’ – the architecture – but not the ‘software’ – the people, the monks, the rituals.”

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