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Losing Tradition in Luang Prabang

In a renovated colonial villa on the banks of the Mekong River, six architects are plotting their next move, examining a 10-foot-wide wall map: a meticulously detailed rendering of the city just outside their office door. Icons show the location and classification of every temple, house, shack, lane, alley, footpath, garden, stream, pond, and banyan tree. Historic buildings are marked in red, orange, and brown, according to age and significance. Newer buildings are shaded in yellow. "These," chief architect Laurent Rampon explains, "are expendable."

To the architects' frustration, the map is growing yellower by the day. Yellow icons suddenly appear in the heart of the city; whole masses of yellow spread along the outskirts. And despite the team's considerable influence, there seems little they can do to stem the yellowing of Luang Prabang. "We've been pleading with the U.N. to give us the power to strike," says Francis Engelmann, another of the architects. Without evident irony, he adds, "We may have to start knocking some of these new buildings down, just to set an example."

With its mix of traditional tribal houses, colonial mansions, and Buddhist temples, Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, is a palimpsest of seven centuries of history, much of it miraculously intact. In 1995, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) called it "the best-preserved city in Asia" and declared the town center a World Heritage Site. Since the UNESCO designation, Luang Prabang has become one of Southeast Asia's must-see cities: the next Chiang Mai, the Prague of the aughties, drawing backpackers and affluent tourists alike. Though there's not a great deal to see or do—the whole town can be covered on foot in a day—visitors tend to linger, hypnotized by its languid rhythms. While most Southeast Asian cities sweep you up with a frantic, turbocharged pace, Luang Prabang urges you to slow down.

Slow down, and you notice the quiet details that define this city of 60,000: the fishermen wading chest-deep in the Mekong. The scent of frangipani mingling with incense from a monastery. The stilt houses hiding down dusty lanes. The faded ocher villas built by the French in the 1920's. The cafésthat appear along the riverbank at sunset, under twinkling lights strung between coconut palms.

Wake up with the roosters at dawn and you encounter a hundred sleepy-eyed monks, shuffling barefoot through town with their alms bowls. Families emerge from homes to offer them handfuls of sticky rice. Follow this silent parade to a vermilion temple, listen to the murmur of morning prayers, and you get an idea of what Indochina once was.

Thanks to the restoration work of UNESCO and its affiliates, Luang Prabang now resembles even more the "city frozen in time" that guidebooks invariably rave about. But whether that's an entirely good thing is a subject of debate. And beneath the tranquillity of daily life in Luang Prabang, the argument is growing ever more intense.

Slow down, and you'll notice the turbulence under the calm.

The yellowing map hangs in the offices of La Maison du Patrimoine ("Heritage House"), or LMP, a mostly French-run commission created in 1996 to safeguard the UNESCO site, restore historic structures, and regulate new construction. Laurent Rampon, a specialist in heritage conservation, worked on similar projects in his native France and in Thailand before arriving in Laos in 1999. What he found was an architect's dream. "Ironically, the revolution probably saved Luang Prabang," he says, referring to the 1975 coup by the Communist Pathet Lao party. "Under Communist rule, there was no investment, no reason to knock down buildings and remake the city. It was a great burden for the people, of course, but it ended up preserving the look of the town."

Architecture is only one element. Rampon is equally concerned with preserving Luang Prabang's unusual urban plan, which has stood more or less unaltered since the 14th century. The city is really a loose collection of villages, each built around a temple, with a network of inner passageways, green space for cultivation, and often a pond at the core. This was typical in medieval Asian cities, and Luang Prabang is one of the few surviving examples.

Many of the town's old passageways were overrun with mud and weeds before LMP (with UNESCO's authorization) began restoring the bricks—"much more attractive," Rampon says. Now the team has turned its attention to the ponds. "We've realized that ecology is as important to heritage as the built environment," says Engelmann, of the LMP. The ponds, after all, were once the villages' lifeblood: a source for fish, frogs, morning glory, watercress. "These are the soft, moist cells of the village, behind the hard shell of the outer buildings," Engelmann says. "Pedestrians wouldn't know they exist." Indeed, LMP maps show 185 ponds and marshes within the city. But residents often use these as dumping grounds, filling them in to make way for (illegal) construction. LMP is trying to convince locals that the wetlands, too, are worth preserving—if only for aesthetic purposes.

"The problem for Luang Prabang," Rampon explains, "is that there's no industry, no agriculture, no alternative source of revenue. They must rely on tourism. So we tell them to be patient. Maintain your heritage, and you'll reap far more benefits in the long run."

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