On a chilly pre-dawn in this wondrous and once-secluded place, scruffy European backpackers and well-heeled American tourists have staked out their firing positions.
A fusillade of flashing, jostling cameras and videocams is triggered the moment Buddhist monks pad barefoot out of their monasteries in a serene, timeless ritual. A forward surge breaks into the line of golden-yellow robes, and nearly tramples kneeling Lao women offering food to the monks.
Later that day, a prince of the former royal capital struggling to preserve his town’s cultural legacy, protests: “For many tourists, coming to Luang Prabang is like going on safari, but our monks are not monkeys or buffaloes.”
Nestled deep in a Mekong River valley, cut off from most of the world by the Vietnam War, Luang Prabang was very different when I first saw it in 1974.
Fraying at the edges, yes, but still a magic fusion of traditional Lao dwellings, French colonial architecture and more than 30 graceful monasteries, some dating back to the 14th century. It wasn’t a museum, but a cohesive, authentic, living community.
Fast forward to 2008: Many of the old families have departed, selling or leasing their homes to rich outsiders who have turned them into a guesthouses, Internet cafes and pizza parlours. There are fewer monks because the newcomers no longer support the monasteries. And the influx of tourists skyrockets, the fragile town of 25,000 now taking in some 300,000 of them a year.
Throughout Laos, tourism was up an astounding 36.5 per cent in 2007, compared to 2006, with more than 1.3 million visitors in the first 10 months of the year, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
Some time has passed since destinations on the major crossroads of Asia – Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and others – first took on this influx, even, ironically, as they bulldozed and skyscrapered over the very character, atmosphere and history which drew the visitors by the jumbo flight.
Now, it’s the turn of places once isolated by conflicts, hostile regimes and “off-road” geography to which only the more intrepid travellers had earlier ventured.
And as Asia’s last little gems, one after another, succumb to tourism’s withering impact, there are truly pangs in my heart, together with a dose of selfish jealousy as for a love one must now share with many.
“Siem Reap may be one of the few spots that still clings to the remnants of the old Cambodia, before the war, before the slaughter,” I wrote in my diary in 1980, returning to this northwestern Cambodia town just months after the fall of the murderous Khmer Rouge.
The human toll had been terrible, but Siem Reap itself endured, its small, languid scale, the old French market, the artistic ambience so befitting a community at the edge of Cambodia’s greatest creations, the ancient temples of Angkor.
At Angkor Wat, an old penniless couple offered warm palm sugar juice from a bamboo cup as a few soldiers escorted me, the sole tourist, through the haunting chambers of the most magnificent temple of them all.
On a recent visit to Siem Reap, I encountered a frenzied, dust-blown work site. Multistorey hotels with plate glass windows were springing up on the banks of the lazy Siem Reap River, into which raw sewage oozed from legions of guesthouses. The market had more bars per block than Las Vegas.
The spiritually traumatized could now book one-on-one healing sessions at luxury retreats with “life coaches” flown in from United States, and “Angkorean” stomach wraps of lotus leaf and warm rice.
Would-be warriors, down with temple fatigue, were throwing hand grenades and firing assault rifles for $30 a burst at the Army Shooting Range. The Phokeethra Royal Angkor Golf and Spa Resort, which boasts an 11th century bridge between the 9th and 10th holes, had brought “the gentlemen’s game to the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The six-kilometre road from Siem Reap to that wonder, once a tranquil alley lined with towering trees, formed a troop of hotels and ugly, mall-like shopping centres – most of them in violation of zoning laws.
On my last evening, I thought a Grand Prix was being run. Young travellers were gathering for sundowner parties while buses delivered Chinese tourists to the grand causeway of Angkor Wat, wreathed by rising exhaust fumes.
Maybe the package groups and top-rung vacationers, with their high-maintenance demands, leave a bigger footprint than backpackers. But in Asia, backpackers have served as the industry’s reconnaissance teams, penetrating rural hinterlands to colonize idyllic spots and pave the way for upmarket travellers. The banana pancake circuit it’s called, after one of their requisite staples.
Take Pai, a village embedded in an expansive, mountain-encircled valley of northern Thailand. It used to be a great escape into an easygoing, exotic world, with tribal settlements scattered in the hills, until the global migratory tribe appeared in droves, dragging its own culture along.
Bamboo and thatch tourist huts hug the meandering Pai River as far as the eye can see, gobbling up rice paddies and clambering up hillsides on its left bank. On the right bank, high-priced resorts have begun to mushroom.
The short downtown strip is jammed with Apple Pai and nine other Internet cafes, video and tattoo parlours, bars, yoga and cooking classes, countless trinket shops and an eatery featuring bagels and cream cheese.
There’s even an English-language newspaper, published by Joe Cummings, an author of those Bibles of shoestring travel, the Lonely Planet guides, which probably did more than anything to put Pai on the circuit. In a wicked daydream, I condemn Joe to eating nothing but banana pancakes and lugging a 500-pound backpack through all eternity.
Even those who make their living from tourism lament the growth.
“It’s too developed now. Too much concrete everywhere, too many guesthouses,” says Watcharee Boonyathammaraksa, who, when I first met her in 1999, had just fled Bangkok’s frantic advertising world to start a cafe, All About Coffee, in what is one of the only old wooden houses left in town.
Luang Prabang has done better in not tearing down its past. UNESCO has kept a close watch after declaring it a World Heritage site in 1995. The agency described the urban jewel as “the best preserved city of Southeast Asia.”
Still, former UNESCO expert and resident, Francis Engelmann, says: “We have saved Luang Prabang’s buildings, but we have lost its soul.”
The traditional community is dissolving in tourism’s wake, with those taking over the old residences interested in profits rather than supporting the monasteries, which exist largely on the offerings of the faithful.
One monastery, Engelmann says, has already closed down and abbots of others complain that tourists enter uninvited into their quarters to snap photos “right in their noses” while they study or meditate.
The senior clergy report drugs, sex and minor crimes, once virtually unknown, among young novices as imported enticements and titillations swirl around their temple gates.
“Sustainable, ethical, eco-tourism” – tourist officials in Laos and elsewhere in Asia chant these fashionable mantras. But their operational plans push for “more, more, more.”
Nothing plunges the region’s governments and marketers into a deeper funk than a drop in arrivals because of a tsunami or outbreak of bird flu.
In Luang Prabang, by official count, more than 160 guesthouses and hotels are already in business, with the Chinese and Koreans planning some really big ones for the wholesale trade.
Along the long block of Sisavangvong Road, at the old town’s core, every building caters to the sightseers in one fashion or another. What a pleasure to finally discover one that doesn’t, even if it’s one housing the Luang Prabang Provincial Federation of Trade Unions. A lean, old man, barefoot and clad only in a checkered blue sarong, would have been a common sight a few years ago. Now, as he shuffles across Sisavangvong, among the trekking boots and fancy parkas, he seems like a stranger in his own hometown.
Nearby, at the Cultural House Puang Champ, my friend Prince Nithakhong Tiaoksomsanith is hoping to somehow act as a conduit of authentic Lao culture between a globalizing generation and the passing one.
His traditional wooden house, propped on stilts, serves as a centre where old masters teach music, dancing, cooking, gold thread embroidery and other arts.
This, Nithakhong says, may help avert Luang Prabang’s possible fate: “Disneyland.”
So, on a late afternoon, four teenagers under the guidance of a musician who once performed in the royal palace, practice. On strings and percussion, they play The Lao Full Moon, a mournful, romantic song.
But even this private compound is vulnerable. As the youngsters play, a tourist tries barging in. And who’s that over the wall, craning their necks?
More tourists, clicking cameras in hand.