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Contrarian Death Watch : Luang Prabang, Laos

Friday, April 25th, 2008

It’s not global warming, it’s not Islamic fundamentalism, it’s not the subprime mortgage crisis. It’s the F’n Global Tourism Industrial Complex.. As you all know, we at the CT have been screeching about the woefully under-reported and under-recognized global menace that is the Global Tourism Industry.

The arrival of the tourist – even a seemingly innocuous trickle of German or Dutch hippy backpackers – inevitable leads to the soul-sapping, the cultural destruction, homogenization, and ultimately the complete degeneration of a once unique place into self-caricature, not to mention the collateral environmental damage.

(It’s a familiar lament to CTers.  So we won’t bore you.  In brief, first, there is Hans, from Bremen and his battered Lonely Planet, or Corey, the eager guide from Mountain Travel Sobek, then in five years – the tchtachkes, the prix-fixe menus, tour groups, buses, the death of it all.)

It’s sad. It makes us weepy. (And yes, it is so commonplace, that’s why we at the CT are chronically sad.)

But….To cope, and to help other CTers better plan their trips, we have introduced a new regular feature The Contrarian Death Watch.   When we learn that a place we have loved has been over-run,  we will declare it DEAD TO THE CT and let you know.  So sadly we report a death…

Luang Prabang, Laos.
Time of Death – 2007 – 2008

It came to our attention last week, when the CT received an email from Rob Jordan, Southeast Asian editor, with the direct subject head “Laos is Dead.”

This surprised us, because just a few weeks earlier, Rob had – as CT readers know — enthused about his affection for the cheap, laid-back charms of Vientiane, Laos’s capital, see below “The Transformative Zen of Vientiane, Laos.”

Rob boldly declared that Vientiane — relatively tourist free, a place where you can get a decent pate sandwich and beer for under two bucks, while watching the sun set over the Mekong – was “The World’s Most Laid Back Capital.”

Rob did not, however, praise Laos’s other, better-known city, Luang Prabang.

Last week, Rob emailed us with the Death Certificate, from no less the friggin New York Times.

Dead to the CT: Luang Prabang.
Time of Death: April 15, 2008 (or thereabouts).

Here the Times’ Seth Mydans provides the autopsy of this quaint, Laotian city of 20,000 renowned for its architecture, its 34 Buddhist temples, and its daily procession of orange-robed monks.

“Like some similar places around the world, this 700-year old city of fewer than 20,000 people is being transformed into a replica of itself: its dwellings into guest houses, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlors; its rituals into shows for tourists.”

Mydans continues, quoting a local artist, Nithatkhong Somsanith, who works to preserve traditional arts.

“Now we see the safari,” Somsanith says. “They come in buses. They look at the monks the same as a monkey, a buffalo. It is theater.” Somsanith adds that the Buddhist heart of Luang Prabang is being defiled. “Now the monks have no space to meditate, no space for quiet.”

Our man in Bangkok, Jordan concurs with the Times account of Luang Prabang, saying, “Exactly my thoughts.”

Worst of all of this, the thing we warn CT readers to avoid is morning in Luang Prabang.

The morning monk procession– once, a big part of the appeal of Luang Prabang – is now a zoo. Mydans describes it accurately.

“As the monks walk down LP’s main street, they must walk through crowds of tourists and food vendors who call out their price. “Dollar! Dollar! They pass Pizza Luang Prabang, Pack Luck Liquor, Walkman Village, German Ice Cream, Café des Arts Restaurant and Bakery, Khmu Spa and Massage and Tatmor Restaurant n’ Bar.”

Cause of Death?

Later, Mydans reveals the ultimate, and ironic source of Luang Prabang’s demise – it was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1995.

This seeming honor is often the death knell for a place.

You can read the complete Times story here.

Do not fret, though. All is not lost. Laos is not, totally, dead.

In a coming post, Jordan will recommend some alternatives to Luang Prabang – places where you can still experience Thervada Buddhist culture and the charms of temple architecture with out also experiencing Pizza Luang Prabang, Walkman Village, and German Ice Cream.

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