Losing Tradition in Luang Prabang

Losing Tradition in Luang Prabang

Tom Tavee
Tom Tavee
In Luang Prabang, Laos, the pull of progress—modern hotels, bright lights, discos—threatens the traditional look and feel of what is perhaps the best-preserved small city in Asia

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."


Of course, a city cannot sustain itself simply by restoring existing buildings. Some development is essential, even within the central heritage zone, so LMP has devised strict building codes to control it. New structures must, for example, have clay-tile roofs, rise no higher than a coconut palm, and incorporate traditional design elements.

Rampon pulls out a hefty spiral-bound book. "We tell residents, 'If you want to build, take a look in here; maybe we can help you choose something nice.' " Hundreds of architectural blueprints, with captions in Lao and French, offer acceptable design options for anyone brave enough to try building inside the heritage zone. One chapter illustrates a dozen variations on a door frame; another shows the proper way to fashion a wooden stilt. The book is a veritable catalogue of model medieval houses.

Unfortunately, many Lao aren't sold on the practicalities. Tile roofs are too heavy, they say; decorative door frames are too cumbersome to carve. Some of these residents are instead erecting unabashedly modern buildings, in defiance of the zoning laws. Hence the yellowing of the map.

"People here have no long view," says Rampon. "They want money now. Those who've made money on tourism want to expand or build more—and they're building some ugly, ugly things." Nor does the threat of fines discourage the offenders, since the local government is often too distracted or ineffectual to levy them. "It's anarchy," Rampon says. "We came in with rules, but it's an alien system; so far most Lao refuse to follow them. They put up these illicit buildings knowing they face no risk."

Rampon has a point: preservation may indeed be the only way for Luang Prabang to sustain itself in the long term. But for many residents, the preservation effort is a double-edged sword. To some frustrated entrepreneurs, the infusion of tourists means only so much if they can't erect a new hotel or shop or nightclub to cater to those tourists—or, for that matter, a new (i.e., modern) house for themselves. An industrious shopkeeper selling paper lanterns to foreigners may earn as much as $20 per day, a small fortune here, yet she's forbidden to install, say, a satellite dish on her roof, unless she can somehow carve one out of rosewood. In effect, those who are gaining the most from the heritage designation—the small but growing middle class, many of whom earn a living from tourism—are the ones who feel most hemmed in by it. Those who've witnessed the unbridled pace of development in neighboring Thailand might conclude that preservation has kept Luang Prabang from growing organically and dynamically, in step with the rest of Southeast Asia. Rather, it runs the risk of turning the town and its residents into a museum display, akin to Nepal's Epcot-y Bhaktapur. From their perspective, Luang Prabang is hardly the city that time forgot—it's the place time refuses to let go of.

Monks, it turns out, have a particularly problematic relationship with the heritage laws. When the head of a local monastery wanted to build a better bathhouse, LMP officials were aghast at his plans for a bunker-like block of concrete. "A horrible eyesore," Engelmann recalls. "So we said, 'Hold on, we can help you build something nicer.' The monk says, 'It's our monastery, we'll build what we want.' "

Beyond the aesthetic concerns, the argument was underscored by a fundamental difference in worldviews. Lao Theravada Buddhism places great emphasis on the accumulation of "merit," or karmic grace attained through good works; in the monks' case, merit can be gained by constructing a new bathhouse, not by restoring an existing one. Furthermore, monks are generally more concerned with durability than with "prettiness"; hence the preference for sturdy, affordable materials like steel and concrete. This function-over-form aesthetic—which, in keeping with Buddhism's here-and-now mind-set, finds little value in preservation for preservation's sake—is a source of constant frustration to the UNESCO team.

"Laotians don't have the respect for heritage that Europeans have," Engelmann insists. "Their attitude is, 'Why would I want to live in an old, malfunctioning house?' " It's true: the fetishization of "old, malfunctioning houses" is a particularly European phenomenon, which explains why Europeans are especially enamored of Luang Prabang. If the preservation effort is to succeed, one challenge will be to encourage in residents a sense of attachment to their physical past—to conjure a collective nostalgia into what has been a stubbornly unsentimental culture.

The heritage team, with the building code on their side, eventually won the bathhouse debate. Now, Engelmann reports, the monastery has a "very nice" wooden bathing hut.

And so the battle goes on, one bathhouse at a time. But unapproved restaurants, shops, guesthouses, and residences continue to pop up overnight, and LMP's efforts to control them amount to a citywide game of whack-a-mole.

Just a half-mile south of LMP headquarters, in the heart of the heritage zone, stands a four-story pile of excess called the New Luang Prabang Hotel.With its cheap stucco façade, fake tile roof, and mirrored-glass windows, it calls to mind a high-rise in Miami, a Roman villa, and a bordello in New Orleans—all at once—and it's exactly the sort of mongrel construction that LMP hopes to banish. The upper floors are swathed in enough concrete to withstand a mortar attack. (In light of LMP's threats, that's probably wise.) Colored lights draped across the terrace flash defiantly, as if to say, "Preserve this!"


I happen to find the hotel's comic gaudiness a bit of a relief in a town defined by quiet good taste. But that has won it no approval from LMP members, who murmur a few Gallic expletives when I mention the place. Still, those sparkling lights attract plenty of backpackers, who crowd the terrace each night for cheap beer and Chinese food.

The general manager, Boupheng Si Oudomphanh, shrugs off the heritage team's objections. "Customers don't complain," he says, surveying the backpacker mob. "They have a nice place to stay in Luang Prabang, and I get good business. What's the problem?"

For all the disagreements over the World Heritage project, its effect on tourism is inarguable. At the time of the UNESCO designation in 1995, Luang Prabang was on the far periphery of Southeast Asia. Getting there involved a tortuous prop-plane ride from the capital,Vientiane, landing at a minuscule airport where the runway was often occupied by a water buffalo. In 1998, a new international airport opened (it was expanded in 2001); direct flights from Bangkok started in 2002, and Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines are to begin service to Luang Prabang within a year. Last fall, Bangkok Airways introduced "World Heritage" flights linking Luang Prabang with Siem Reap, Hu´e, and other UNESCO sites in the region.

Meanwhile, a pair of luxury resorts, the Grand Luang Prabang and the Villa Santi Resort, opened last year in the countryside west of the city; both are done in the Amanresort style. Tourism officials and developers are obviously banking on a rise in affluent visitors. Judging from the high-end tour groups coming through, they have reason to be optimistic.

Yet for now, Luang Prabang is still a haven for Lonely Planet-toting backpackers. At times the main street resembles a college campus, with a surfeit of Tevas and VOLUNTEERS FOR ECO-FUTURE T-shirts. They arrive by boat from Thailand or overland from Vientiane, lured by stories of temples and waterfalls, rafting trips, and laid-back locals. Mainly, they're enthralled by how cheap things are. Exchange a hundred bucks and you're given a stack of bills so heavy you have to carry it in your backpack. Counting the notes—the largest denomination equivalent to 68 cents—takes forever; you'd be better off using a scale.

At any of the countless cafés on Sisavangvong Road—where a Lao dinner sets you back $1.75—the sunburned nomads congregate and swap travel tales. Flip through a dog-eared guest book to find entries scribbled by Danes, Koreans, Israelis, New Zealanders:

"Nice to escape the capitalist dogs in Bangkok and meet a few puppies here."

"Backward, crazy, beautiful: this is Laos. Come and listen to the rice grow."

"Caution! Be careful of a Crazy Small Monkey in Vang Vieng! He will bite!"

"Spring rolls excellent. Service leaves a lot to be desired." (And, next to this, a retort: "This is Laos, ya daft snot!!")

Farther north on Sisavangvong Road, the storefronts become slightly more high-toned. At Café Ban Vat Sene, expats peruse year-old copies of Paris Match while breakfasting on croissants, tamarind-and-coconut jam, and Lao coffee. Across the street is the École Primaire, where uniformed children assemble in the courtyard each morning to sing the Lao national anthem. Pass by during recess and schoolgirls chirp, "Bonjour monsieur! Comment t'appelles-tu?" Fifty years after the colonials departed, the French influence in Laos is still pervasive. Indeed, it's easy to believe they never left.

Gilles Vautrin, a former telecommunications engineer from France, manages L'Éléphant, the most expensive restaurant in town. In an open-sided dining room lit by glowing sconces, the waitstaff circulates with plates of imported cheeses and housemade pâtés. The menu features a French take on ingredients like Mekong catfish, Lao venison, water buffalo (for steak frites), and the superb local watercress (phak nam). A bowl of Dijon mustard sits on each table. The clientele includes the usual French expats, tour groups sick of rice and desperate for a salad, even the occasional celebrity—Matt Dillon, Kylie Minogue.

L'Éléphant is typical of what you might call the "new wave" in Luang Prabang. As more wealthy visitors trickle in, so do the safe-to-eat-at restaurants and tasteful shops that cater to them. The signs and menus are in French and English, the prices in U.S. dollars, the lighting incandescent—and the proprietors, as often as not, Westerners.

Joanne Smith left a career as a London fashion photographer to travel through Laos in 1999. While in Luang Prabang, she met Veomanee Duangdala, a young Lao woman from a family of master weavers. Lao textiles are renowned for their intricacy and refinement; Smith was captivated by the form and soon became adept at the loom herself. In 2000, the pair founded OckPopTok (East Meets West) to sell their wall hangings, scarves, bedspreads, and throw rugs, which mostly use natural dyes—mangosteen skin for pinks, insect wax for reds, turmeric roots for yellows. The gallery is run as a collective, with Smith, Veomanee, and 12 Lao colleagues all sharing in the profits.


I ask the weavers how they feel about the UNESCO project. Cue general giggles. Smith explains: "The girls make fun of the heritage thing. It's as if they live in a theme park. If someone's wearing a traditional outfit, they'll tease her: 'Hey, heritage girl!' "

At the moment, the women are wearing what Smith calls their "modest man-killer look"—Western-style pants and blouses, a certain amount of makeup, some heels. They're bound for the disco.

The Duang Champa nightclub sits on the outskirts of town, well out of earshot of the heritage zone. Beyond the vast parking lot, which fills up with motorbikes on weekend nights, rises a sprawling, quasi-Italianate palace rimmed by a thousand twinkling bulbs. Hulking stone elephants guard the entrance. Black lights cast an eerie glow on the crowd. Inside, separate groups of girls and boys regard one another warily. Most appear to be under 21 and are neither drinking nor smoking; a few older men consume bottles of Chivas in the roped-off VIP section.

At exactly 9:30, the houselights go down, and a nine-piece band takes the stage, kicking into a furious mélange of Lao pop, Thai metal, and country-and-western—and suddenly, everyone starts line dancing. Girls and boys whoop and holler, shuffling across the floor. After a few more songs, an emcee introduces the star. Hysterical screaming ensues, and out comes the man known only as Cheech, a Laotian superfreak sporting a huge fake mustache and a particularly insane clown costume. With the band pumping away, Cheech leaps around the stage and into the crowd playing psychotic air-guitar.

And as quickly as it began, it ends. At 11:30 sharp the lights come up, the music stops, and the crowd heads for the parking lot. Curfew is still strictly enforced, and no one wants to risk breaking it: discos here have a history of being shut down for even a minor violation. So off they roar into the night, piled two or three deep on their motorbikes—back to the dark and silent streets, to their quaint traditional homes and old-world parents, back to their little town that time forgot.

SECURITY UPDATE
Recent events have raised concerns about the safety of road travel in Laos. In two separate incidents in February and April 2003, gunmen attacked public buses on Highway 13, killing more than two dozen people, including two Swiss nationals. Lao officials claim the attackers were bandits, but other sources point to anti-government rebels (whose existence the state denies). Militants from northern Laos's ethnic Hmong minority have been waging a small-scale rebellion against the government since the 1975 Communist takeover. No recent incidents have been reported in or around Luang Prabang; however, traveling by bus outside the city is not recommended.

LAOS AND SARS
At press time, the World Health Organization had not reported any cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Laos. For the latest on SARS in Asia, visit the WHO Web site, www.who.int.


The Facts

Bangkok Airways (866/226-4565; bangkok air.com) now offers direct flights from Bangkok via Sukhothai. More airlines serve Vientiane, where you can connect to Luang Prabang on the (much improved) national carrier, Lao Aviation. Vientiane is worth a few days. The optimal time to visit Laos is from November to March, when the weather is dry and not too hot. But during those months slash-and-burn logging in the forests around Luang Prabang can drape the city in a smoky haze; clear days are rare. Late spring and summer bring the rains, along with a break in the haze.

HOTELS
Villa Santi Hotel A former royal mansion, this 25-room boutique hotel in the heart of the heritage zone has a colonial flavor, with teak and rosewood furnishings and antique fans. Note: Last year, the plush Villa Santi Resort opened on the outskirts of town, but the hotel wins out for convenience and charm. DOUBLES FROM $90. SAKKARINE RD.; 856-71/252-157, FAX 856-71/252-158; www.villasantihotel.com
Grand Luang Prabang Resort Another royal residence (Prince Phetsarah's Xiengkeo Palace) converted into a hotel. This one sits on the banks of the Mekong amid acres of gardens and rice fields, just a 10-minute drive from town. Opened in 2001, it's the most luxurious option in Luang Prabang. DOUBLES FROM $90. BAN XIENGKEO; 856-71/253-851, FAX 856-71/253-027; www.grandluangprabang.com
Pansea Luang Prabang On a quiet hill overlooking the city, this French-managed resort was recently renovated in a chic pan-Asian style, and now plays host to many business and tour groups. DOUBLES FROM $120. DOMAINE DE PHOU VAO; 856-71/212-194, FAX 856-71/212-534; www.pansea.com

RESTAURANTS
L'Éléphant Try the merguez sausage, the rough and hearty country pâté, or the jambon fumé and any of the salads made with greens from L'Éléphant's own garden. DINNER FOR TWO $40. BAN VAT NONG; 856-71/252-482
Park Houay Mixay First-rate Lao food, served on picnic tables in a tin-roofed roadhouse with a trickling fountain. Ask for khai pen ("Mekong weed"): dried river moss flattened into thin strips resembling Japanese nori, then lightly fried with garlic, chile, and sesame seeds. Don't miss the terrific Lao sausage or the hearty, anise-flavored beef stew. DINNER FOR TWO $20. 75-76 BAN XIENG MOUANE; 856-71/212-260
Café Ban Vat Sene The best breakfast in town (for only $2), in a pale yellow, fan-cooled space with rattan chairs and heavy teak tables. Also excellent sandwiches on fresh warm baguettes at lunch, and delicious watercress salads. LUNCH FOR TWO $14. SAKKARINE RD.
Princess Restaurant A tourist scene, but a worthy one: the Villa Santi's dining room serves some remarkably good Lao dishes, such as watercress-spinach-cilantro soup and peppery pork sausage, on a terrace overlooking the main street. Spice your dish up with the jamlike jaew bawng, made from chiles and dried water-buffalo skin. DINNER FOR TWO $20. VILLA SANTI HOTEL, SAKKARINE RD.; 856-71/252-157
Maylek Pub A sexy and sleek French-run boîte that comes alive late at night, after most of L.P. is asleep. BAN VIENG KHEO

SHOPPING
OckPopTok Joanne Smith and Veomanee Duangdala's splendid textile boutique. Shipping is easy to arrange. 73-75 BAN VAT NONG; 856-71/253-219; www.ockpoptok.com
Baan Khily Gallery One of the most respected galleries in town, selling local crafts and art (folk paintings on rough saa [mulberry] paper, antique photographs, wood carvings) in a cozy two-story space. Readings and lectures are common in the balcony café. SAKKARINE RD.; 856-71/212-611
La Nouvelle Galerie An intoxicating sight after dark, when this open-front shop is aglow with a hundred paper lanterns. The stunning designs are hand-carved of native wood and covered with saa paper, and will fold flat for shipping. 37-39 BAN CHOUM KHONG

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