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Losing Tradition in Luang Prabang

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.

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