by Kayti Denham
The city of Luang Prabang is facing a big challenge - having survived colonisation and communism, can it survive tourism?
Luang Prabang sits in the northern, mountainous region of the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos. Situated on a peninsula at a confluence of the mighty Mekong River and the Nam Khan, this small yet culturally rich city has become a magnet for visitors seeking tranquillity.
With a 'relaxed' communist government, French colonial heritage and Buddhist religion, the country of Laos intrigues. Its magnificently turbulent history - the overthrow of the King in 1975 by the Pathet Lao, the reluctant inclusion in America's war on communism in Vietnam and its virtual isolation until the late eighties – offers visitors glimpses into the many histories
of Southeast Asia.
Tourism is the country’s fastest growing industry, and Luang Prabang could be the next 'boom' destination. The city has seen a rise in living standards; in just four years, there are signs of greater affluence with motorbikes, mobile phones, internet access and constant electricity everywhere.
Fortunately for the city and tourists, Luang Prabang was declared a World Heritage site in 1995 on account of it being an “outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European
colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries."
This means that the town cannot be altered and must preserve its unique heritage, which is not easy. As Laurent Rampon a UNESCO heritage conservation specialist explains, Luang Prabang is not a building but a living city, and its conservation demands the preservation of both tangible and intangible elements.
Preserving the unique and tranquil atmosphere, native plants, buildings in their authentic state are part of the UNESCO challenge. What some would see as improvements to the standard of living such as satellite dish, cement and concrete are putting the 'essence' of Luang Prabang at risk.
With this in mind, and with an eye on the increasing tourism market, many hotel businesses are seeking heritage positions in Luang Prabang that will give visitors the chance to experience this wonderful city in ways that will support and sustain development of the Laotian community.
Heading up the new wave of tourism in Luang Prabang is the Alila Group. The 3 Nagas on the main street of Sisavangvong Road near the Wat Saen consists of two houses; one, built in 1903, set in a garden on the Nam Khan River and the other, just across the road, built in 1989. Both houses have undergone traditional restorations that have created a living history in which modern comforts like air-conditioning and luxurious bathrooms are discrete.
Recently the group has begun to restructure another extraordinary property, a large-walled building and the site of the old jail. By working closely with cultural advisers and architects the Alila Group is able to restore the building while creating beautiful villas and grounds within the walls.
It is an ambitious project and a necessary one for today in Luang Prabang the 'tipping point' has been reached. It is felt that the style of tourism that develops here over the next two years will be crucial to the survival of Luang Prabang. Laurent, of UNESCO, warns that if the people living in Luang Prabang today are persuaded to sell their homes for profit to developers, there is a risk of losing architectural authenticity.
Another waning asset is traditional art. Over at the Puang Champa Cultural House, Nithakong Somsanith, once a Prince of Luang Prabang and now a French citizen, runs an open house for students to learn the arts of their region. Nithakong's speciality is the intricate gold thread weaving that adorns the silk hangings and garments of traditional times but his repertoire includes traditional painting on mulberry paper and the dances of the tribal groups.
Nithakong works with youths to help them understand and embrace what had been lost during the old regime of restrictive communism. Without this understanding, Nithakong is aware there will be no future generations of craftspeople, artists or dancers to keep the ancient culture alive.
The Cultural House also offers scholarships to Loatians outside the country to return and study in Luang Prabang. Others too recognise the risk of loss. Marie-Colombe, an expatriate turned resident, is working on a project that combines language learning with renovation work. The local schools, built during the colonial French times and on sites of previous temples, are in disrepair. To restore them, University students offer their labour in repairing the buildings for language lessons.
If this attitude can prevail, maybe the essence of Luang Prabang will not be lost. "We should not give up the fight to preserve Luang Prabang just because we believe we will lose," says Laurent.
Photos by Bella Hill.
For more information, visit:
On 3 Nagas by Alila Luang Prabang www.alilahotels.com
The Puang Champa Heritage House http://www.laoheritagefoundation.org
UNESCO World Heritage Centre http://whc.unesco.org
Most ASEAN nationalities as well as a few others like Russians can enter Laos "visa free". All other tourists need a visa in the form of a tourist visa (for one or possibly two months) issued by a Lao embassy or consulate, or a visa on arrival now available at all ports of entry with the exception of overland crossings from Cambodia.
There are Visa-on-Arrival facilities at the international airports in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse, and at all border crossings with the exception when entering overland from Cambodia. Visas can also be obtained in advance from Lao embassies/consulates. Prices range from US$30 to US$42 depending on nationality - Australians pay $30, Canadians US$42, Belgians US$30, British, Dutch US$35. Virtually all nationalities are issued a 30 day entry permit stamp. When applying for a tourist visa or to obtain a visa on arrival, one passport photo is required.
This article is about heritage, culture, art, ecotourism, architecture, preservation, restoration, Luang Prabang, Laos.