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Losing Tradition in Luang Prabang

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.

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