The enthusiasm of tourists for Luang Prabang’s heady charms has brought prosperity to the Lao town, but is the visitor influx damaging its cultural treasures? Writing for Southeast Asia Globe, Sebastian Strangio asks the question.
The monks emerge shortly after six in the morning, smudges of flame in the predawn gloom. Alms bowls in hand, they walk silently through the town past Western-style cafés and restaurants. They pass boutique hotels with frangipani trees and soft white curtains covering the windows. Eventually, they turn onto Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang’s main drag, where a throng of tourists eagerly awaits.
As the monks begin taking offerings from a line of Buddhist devotees, cameras are primed and the pack converges. One European man lights up the pavement with a huge flash on a tripod, filming monks as they step off a curb. Another walks up and down the line with a huge camera, pointing its black snout into the stream of saffron-clad novices and firing off machine-gun shutter-bursts.
For many, the tourist circus surrounding the tak bat encapsulates the negative side of a boom in visitors that has transformed the character of this UNESCO-listed former royal capital. “It’s like a monkey troupe, it’s like a Disneyland,” says one prominent Laotian involved in cultural preservation efforts, who requested anonymity due to recent controversies over mass tourism and heritage issues. “We have [taken] action, we have made brochures, but I think it’s not enough.”