Has the tourism rose of Laos wilted and grown a few thorns!
“Breakfast is from 8 to10”, Phun says in perfect English. We climb the rickety stairs to my hotel room. He opens the door to a surprisingly large room. It is very dark with one window overlooking a temple courtyard. There is a bed, side table and a cupboard in the corner. To the left, a shower, an air conditioner and a little fridge with 2 plastic bottles of, what I hope, is fresh water! “Very basic”, I think, “but comfy and clean”. Two young monks in the courtyard are socialising on their mobile phones.
It’s been a hot and sweaty trip to Luang Prabang. A thin red film of dust covers me from head to foot. I strip and hop into the shower. The warm water pours over me, refreshingly glorious but abruptly stops! I fumble for the towel, soap in my eyes, and think, “oh boy, here we go!”
But I’ve gone ahead of myself. Let me take you back to Bangkok airport where Bangkok Airways, PG 612 departs from the very last gate on the concourse. Two escalator rides onto the bus and another to the furthest plane on the apron and that gives you a sense of the priority that a destination like Luang Prabang has. The ATR 72’s propellers spin precariously as I scramble up the stairs, my camera and laptop in hand. The aircraft make is another indication of priority.
Arriving in Luang Prabang is uneventful. We are the only aircraft in sight. At immigration the atmosphere is tense. Officers clad in faeces-brown uniforms and solemn faces offer no welcome and there is no usual airport buzz. The airport is noticeably empty, save the kiosk selling taxi rides into town. The Lonely Planet guide suggests a tuk-tuk, but they are conspicuous by their absence.
After a restless night with a mosquito and a call to prayer at 4am, I push my way through the morning market that miraculously appeared overnight in front of the hotel gate. I negotiate through the hustle and heady smells of durian and fried banana to the main thoroughfare and tripod my camera strategically for the Alms Ceremony.
At dawn each day a saffron snake of monks, young and old, slither along the sidewalk, begging bowls round and revered by cloth and hand. Pious villagers, mostly Loa Buddhist, place sticky rice, fruit and sweets into the large brass bowls. The tradition is captivating. On the corner, a little girl in rags has a box on the gravel and is kneeling down. She, in contrast is begging to the monks. Solemnly and without hesitation each monk removes rice from his own bowl and drops it into her box.
The rose without the thorns
Later, I sit pensively in the morning sun and eat eggs and baguette for breakfast. It’s hot with no breeze and no comforting fan. Laos is rugged and primitive. I’m in an under-developed country with little infrastructure. You can almost hear the echo of a war that has scarred the land. But, Luang Prabang is a charming. It’s the Western bubble in Laos. Little pockets of real historical beauty with palaces and temples. A town encircled by the green mountains of Phou Thao and Phou Nang. Once located on the silk route, the 19th and 20th century European colonialists built royal and noble residences and buildings. Fortunately with the UNESCO Heritage status, many of these buildings have survived and today house boutiques, French patisseries and trendy coffee shops. It was after all a French protectorate in 1893. And that’s where I met Susi, in the quaint Café de Malee. Susi is from Edinburgh. She has been in Luang Prabang practising yoga and finding the space and time to finish her nutrition diploma.
“I chose to base myself here because it’s cheap”, she explains. “It has all the European mod cons that I like for day to day living, however tourists who come here and think this is Laos are sorely mistaken”.
Job creation or extortion?
I’m keen to visit a few temples and Cow, my tuk-tuk driver, is waiting patiently for me. I agree to meet Susi the next day at the Belle Rive Hotel for a traditional Larb salad. He has brought along his 8-year-old nephew. I’m delighted and can now justify the extortionate fare I’m paying for this personal tour. As we head off to the Xieng Thong temple, I discover that the temple dates back to the 16th century with its gorgeous gilding, engravings and hand paintings.
“I used to be a tour guide with a big company but I found it too stressful”. Cow chats away as he drives. “That’s how I learned English. But now I can get money quickly from tourists and I can relax”, he clarifies.
As we arrive at the temple, two novice monks rush up to the tuk-tuk. One of the boys has his hand wrapped in his robe and is as white as a sheet. His friend talks excitedly to Cow in Lao explaining how his finger has been chopped off in the workshop and can he take them to the hospital. Being an emergency, we aren’t selective and drive straight to any hospital. It turns out to be the new children’s hospital, which has recently been set up by a Western company. It’s currently operating with skeleton staff but they rush the patient inside.
Bureaucratic red tape
I’m pondering my very personal tour of Luang Prabang, when a lovely young doctor sits down next to me and starts chatting. Doctor Jones goes on to say. “The government have tied up the project in so much red tape that it’s limiting the objectives and the success”. He wearily confides in me. “The powers that be have severed state benefits to any nurses and doctors who work in Western hospitals. They assume that Western management will take care of that. It’s impossible to get staff”. I’ve caught him on a bad day. “It’s a Lao hospital, to help Lao people! It’s so frustrating, it’s so short sighted”.
Disneyland rip off
The following day, I meet Susi again for lunch. I want to ask her advice about a tour to the Pak Ou Caves and another to the waterfalls. Susi quickly pours cold water over my plans. “It’s the usual rip off. You’ll spend an hour waiting for them to pick you up. You have to make the obligatory stop at a weaving village where there is no actual weaving. There is one stall per house and more hanging around at the caves. The caves are completely overrun by tourists and you’ll wait another hour before you get ferried back”. She exclaims! “The tour guides will have their hands out at the end expecting a tip and will be hugely insulted if you give anything less than 5000 Kip. The waterfalls felt more like a Disney waterpark to me with too many tourists. If you go really early in the morning it might not be that bad”. She frowns.
Is Luang Prabang becoming tainted? Are the attitude and belief that as Western tourists you can afford more? As Cow said. “But now I can get money more quickly from tourists”.
Expectations of a younger generation
Jutta is a volunteer and teaches English to the novice monks. They are sent to the temple to learn English. The family farming in the villages cannot afford to feed all the children and so the young men are sent into town. Jutta explains how most of the novice monks now expect their English teacher to sponsor them. “They don’t understand that we are already sponsoring others and can’t sponsor everyone. I decided to sponsor a guy who asked if I could buy him a computer. I sent him away to get a price and he came back with the most expensive option. USD 1000”! She squeals. “When I said no, that’s too expensive, he became so angry”.
Can English make a difference?
Two organisations www.thelanguageproject.org and www.bigbrothermouse.com ask tourists to volunteer some time to converse with the students while visiting. One of the organisers, ‘Carol’, feels there is a huge gap in the development of these youngsters and English is not the only solution. She elaborates. “It goes back to school. They are not taught to think in school. That’s the joy of communism. These kids are not thinking about becoming a teacher or nurse. They’ve learned that being able to speak English will get them a job in tourism. English brings money and all their problems will be solved”, she explains. “ I am trying to change our approach. If we set up workshops on goal setting and wider career aspirations maybe this can help”.
Has the time come to think through the winners and losers of tourism in Luang Prabang? We keep hearing that tourism creates jobs and swells the coffers of a country. But is there another side to the story? Many of us travel to exotic destinations but do we always have the inside scoop of what is really happening at grass roots? Do our contributions benefit those who need it most? If tourism is going to be the architect of these young lives, its time to do a lot more homework before we travel to third would, emerging destinations.