Nestled deep in a Mekong River valley, Luang Prabang was cut-off
from the outside world by decades of war and political isolation. A
fusion of traditional Lao dwellings, French colonial architecture and
more than 30 monasteries, the whole town was declared a World Heritage
Site by UNESCO in 1995. The United Nations agency described it as "the
best preserved city of Southeast Asia."
That put Luang Prabang on the tourist map and since then the number of
visitors to the town has soared from just a few thousand in 1995 to
over 300,000 today.
With property prices rising on the back of the tourist influx, many
local people sold their properties to outside developers who turned
them into internet cafes, restaurants and guesthouses.
But while tourism is generating income and jobs, some residents are worried that the town is in danger of losing its identity.
Writer Francis Engelmann is a consultant for UNESCO who has lived in Luang Prabang for 12 years:
"Here, the conservation of the architecture has been, roughly speaking,
successful but conservation of the soul of the city is now the big
threat. Most of the people who love Luang Prabang love it because it's
a very special way of living, a culture, a religious place, and this is
under threat because what is surviving is only the most commercial
parts of it."
Longtime Luang Prabang resident Tara Gudjadar is a consultant with the
Laos Ministry of Tourism. She says that mass tourism is changing Luang
Prabang in both good and bad ways:
"Tourism is a force for economic change in Luang Prabang - it's really
transforming the lives of many, many people here. They see
opportunities, you know, through tourism that they might not have seen
before. However, there are changes happening in the social fabric of
Luang Prabang with people moving outside of town, or becoming more
commercially orientated, rather than simply sort of, family orientated."
With local people selling up and moving out, some monasteries have been
forced to close because many newcomers do not support the monks, who
rely on the community for food.
Another source of discontent is tourist's lack of respect for the
town's religious traditions - most notably the daily alms-giving
ceremony where monks collect food offerings from the faithful.
When the monks leave their monasteries every morning they have to
negotiate their way through a fusillade of flash photography and
But giving alms is a solemn Buddhist ceremony, says Nithakhong Tiao
Somsanith, head of the Puang Champa Cultural House which is trying to
preserve the town's cultural heritage:
"The meaning of the giving [of] alms early in the morning is the
practice of meditation in Buddhism, and humility, and detachment. It's
not a show - it's every day life for the monks. And so we need to have
respect. It's not a safari, the monks are not the buffalo, the monks
are not a monkey troupe."
Tourists should stay away from the alms giving ceremony, says Francis Engelmann:
"If you are not a Buddhist, if you don't believe the truth of Buddhism
or if you are not part of this religion, don't do it! Look at it from
far, quietly; respect it, as you would respect a Christian ceremony in
a church - or in a temple - in a western country."
More outsiders mean more outside influences, and some residents are
worried that Luang Prabang's young people are losing their identity,
says Tara Gudgadar:
"People get worried about the social mores changing, you know, with
tourists and foreigners coming in. I would sort of argue that it's not
necessarily the foreigners that are changing that, but just generally
the globalization of the town. Tourism is bringing in money and people
are obviously much more connected to the rest of the world now than
they were ten years ago."
Throughout Laos, tourism was up an astounding 36.5 percent in 2007,
compared to 2006, with more than 1.3 million visitors in the first 10
months of the year, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
And while the global economic crisis could reduce those numbers in the
short term, experts say that the numbers of visitors to Luang Prabang
will continue to grow over time.
Whether that is ultimately a good or a bad thing for Luang Prabang
remains open for debate. However most people here agree that urgent
measures are needed if the town is to protect the unique culture that
draws in so many tourists in the first place.
Listen to Laos Tourism in Lao by clicking any audio file.