more about luang prabang

Some years ago the entire town of Luang Prabang was declared  a“UNESCO World Heritage site”.  I’m not really sure why this is the case.  There are lots of wats, and some interesting colonial architecture, but I’m not sure about it’s status as a world heritage site.  Everywhere you go in the city there are “no smoking” signs that say “Smoke Free World Heritage”.  I wish I had been able to take a picture of one but my camera wasn’t working.

However, I recently read an article in the Vientiane Times saying that UNESCO had sent a committee to Luang Prabang in the past month to evaluate it’s status as a “World Heritage” site, because apparently since it was granted this status about 10 years ago, tourism has grown incredibly, and the city has begun growing also at a fast pace.  A lot of new developments, mostly hotels and guesthouses and other tourist infrastructre, has been built or is being planned.  UNESCO basically said that all that needs to stop or they will un-declare Luang Prabang a world heritage site.  They also mentioned that several wetland areas were about to be developed into hotels or something, and one of the provisions of UNESCO re-granting world heritage status was that the wetlands had to be restored and the city had to work towards conserving the historical aspects of the city.

Here is the full text of the article from the Vientiane Times (re-produced without permission!!  shhh! ):
The government will crackdown on violations of UNESCO rules to ensure Luang Prabang does not lose its status as a world heritage listed city.

Past violations related to construction of new buildings had put the city’s status at risk, Standing Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad told the National Assembly on Friday.

The only solution was to strictly enforce UNESCO rules from now on, he said.

“If we don’t solve the problem, Luang Prabang will be out of the list of world heritage sites,” Mr Somsavat said.

Last year UNESCO requested the government report on how Luang Prabang has changed since being listed as a world heritage site in 1995. UNESCO officials also inspected the city and asked the government to respond on 15 points.

One of these relates to road construction approved by the Department of Public Works and Transport without agreement from UNESCO, when UNESCO should have made the final decision, he said.

Mr Somsavat said some people knowingly constructed new buildings which breached UNESCO rules, while others sold their houses to entrepreneurs and moved away.

One troubling sign of this development was a reducing number people giving alms to monks in the morning, he said. Not only does this indicate a move away from tradition, the decline could also negatively impact tourism, because this tradition is one of Luang Prabang’s major drawcards.

“World heritage is still new for us and our biggest challenge is making local people understand the need to preserve cultural heritage and how this impacts on development,” Mr Somsavat said.

“Some people ask why we should preserve heritage if it means we cannot develop. But I don’t think heritage preservation delays our development. On the contrary it encourages development.”

UNESCO officials have asked the government to make an updated map of the city and encourage cooperation between UNESCO and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

The Standing Deputy PM said coordination must be improved between relevant sectors, and local people needed to be educated about the importance of Luang Prabang’s world heritage status.

Luang Prabang’s popularity as a tourist destination has increased since the city was listed as a world heritage site in 1995.

Mr Somsavat said the influx of visitors helped local people generate more income and improve their living standards.

“Now we have two world heritage listed sites: Luang Prabang and Vat Phou Champassak in Champassak province. But we won’t propose any more sites to UNESCO until we improve the existing ones,” he said.

“We will assess what we have done and try to address challenges. We have many sites to be proposed to UNESCO, but we want to study them carefully first.”

By Somsack Pongkhao

ending radio silence

I just got back from a 4 days trip to Luang Prabang, and I have lots of news!

Firstly, I went to Luang Prabang to celebrate my 29th birthday.  Just thinking about it makes me feel old but I had a lovely time in the former royal capital.  I took a bus Saturday morning from Vientiane, and the route took us through the mountains and jungles of central Laos for 12 hours, around twisty curving narrow roads and through tiny villages.  Despite being extremely remote, I actually saw a full-sized drum kit through the doorway of one of these wooden shacks perched on the top of a mountain somewhere between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

My impression of Luang Prabang: the contemporary city, is that it exists solely as a tourist destination.  It is now “Low season”, yet the town was absolutely crawling with tourists.  The overwhelming majority of them were dirty, smelly, loud, obnoxious, drunk young europeans and americans.

Maybe I’m just getting old, and jaded, but I felt extremely disdainful of all the half naked tourists walking around Luang Prabang.  Visiting there made me really remember why I was never all that interested in visiting Asia in the first place – I find the whole “Backpacking around South East Asia” thing to be just a big cliché, involving little more than drunkenness and sleazyness in most cases.  I’ll admit that I did meet a few nice people who were doing everything in their power not to perpetuate that stereotype of the dirty, smelly, drunk, ignorant, culturally insensitive tourist, and I really like those people.  But I’m still really worried about the overall impression Lao people must have of all these tourists, and therefore their respective countries, considering some of the behaviour I witnessed.

Sunday was my birthday. Thanks for all the kind birthday greetings from everybody!

This day I climbed to the top of Phu Si, gazed out over the Mekong river valley in the rain, and discovered that my camera was not working.  I spent the rest of the day at the spa, and then ate a huge and delicious and extremely expensive dinner.  The family sitting next to me was also celebrating their son’s 8th birthday, so then they even let me share their chocolate mousse cake with them!

While in Luang Prabang I also visited a few Wats and took a boat to some caves.  It was mostly rainy the whole time I was there.  The Mekong kept rising higher and higher each day.  On Tuesday I participated in a cooking class at Tamarind Cafe, which I would highly highly recommend.  Our group included two really funny guys from Britain, a young British lady doctor who had been traveling around India for the past thee months, and a couple from Philly.  We learned to make Mok Pa, fished steamed in banana leaves; Buffalo Bile Laap (yum!); Luang prabang stew; lemongrass stuffed with chicken; sticky rice; jeow; and probably some other stuff I am forgetting.  It was really fun. I made plans to spend some time with the British folks when the pass back through Vientiane.

I took the night bus back, 12 hours which where mostly horrific, and sleep was nearly impossible.  I woke up from a strange dream about being in a bicycle shop where there were millions and millions of bicycles arranged by colour; like a rainbow of bicycles; to find I was back in Vientiane.  And it was still raining.

Other than that, Luang Prabang was quite lovely.  It certainly has a lot more charm and is much more attractive than Vientiane.  However I don’t think I would want to live there.  It’s very tiny and bursting with 19 year olds in thai pants and beerlao wife-beaters.

However, before I left for my jaunt up to Luang Prabang, the folks at the library threw a little birthday party for me.

We had lunch on the 2nd floor, and the ladies brought out a huge feast, including Lao Lao and Laap and sticky rice ball salad, and some of my other favorites.  I baked a cake, and everybody said it was “sep lae”, which means “very delicious”.

most of the library staff, and me!
most of the library staff, and me!

To the left of me is Mr. Chansy, the library director.  In bright orange is Sisavanh, one of my best pals.  Mrs. Bounsalome is on the very right, poking her head out.  She is my Lao teacher.  Next to me on the right is Mr. Vay, the only person at the library around my age.  He speaks almost flawless English and is going to Australia next year to study Information Science.

ucl staff singing happy birthday
ucl staff singing happy birthday

They all sang me happy birthday in english and then I blew out some imaginary candles.

me and my library ladies
me and my library ladies

It was a lovely lovely day.  I don’t know who that tall guy is though.

The big news of the moment is that the Mekong is on the verge of flooding the entire Vientiane area!  The library has created some kind emergency-action plan that involved shovels and sandbags and I also volunteered to help if needed.  If the river continues to rise… it will be bad news.  My house is about 200m from the Mekong so I will probably be in a lot of trouble if there is a massive flood.