When we visited Luang Prabang in 2002, this small town, sitting on the Mekong River and home to at least 34 wats, or Buddhist temples, still felt a little undiscovered. While walking along the main drag, though, I sometimes felt as though I was in a European city with the French colonial buildings lining the street. There were more dogs than vehicles on the quiet streets with scattered backpackers going into pizza parlors and internet cafes.
Fast forward to 2008 and from what I am reading and learning from people visiting today, this small river town is becoming much more tourist laden.
I suppose I am partly to blame simply due to the fact that I visited there 6 years ago and put up pictures of its beauty and splendor on my web site. And, ok, I was also a tourist. And sure, as much as I’d like it to be so, I know that 60 – 70,000 people who visited Luang Prabang in the last year have not visited my website, so I guess I can’t take even a little bit of the credit, or blame, as the case may be.
Truth be told, Luang Prabang is a beautiful little city nominated as a UNESCO heritage site in 1995. Once this happened, the tourists came in larger numbers. Sitting on the balcony of Villa Santi drinking a cold Beer Lao under a warm sun, watching the city pass by is hard to beat, I’ll admit. I wish I was there right now!
However, once I got off the main street and onto the side roads, I saw almost no tourists. Even though I am one, I like being apart and finding areas where I can see and feel, although briefly and surely not as authentically as I would like, daily living in a culture so unlike my own.
How do I know what’s real and what isn’t? This is probably a uniquely American question.
Everything felt real beyond any experience of real I get at home. I walked past houses where grandmas were outside cooking dinner or kids were playing in the schoolyard or monks were walking along the road or sausages were hanging out to dry or any number of things that couldn’t possibly have all been staged for my benefit. It’s truly a ridiculous notion.
This is my dilemma as a tourist and a visitor to another’s home city, though. Being an American I stand out. In some places, although not in Luang Prabang in 2002, I am, ohhh, how to say this nicely, begged upon. The locals see me as a wealthy individual and compared to them I am wealthy. Sometimes I just want to give everything I have, but at the same time I don’t want to perpetrate begging and low-brow marketing (i.e., paying $50 for something that cost someone $0.25 to manufacture because I am completely clueless). This happens all the time and it’s happened to me because I am a sucker and because I hate saying no to people who look like they really need the money.
Anyway, I digress. While we were there a favorite activity was visiting the wats. And even though we were there for 6 days and visited a couple or more wats a day, we did not get to them all. Along the way we met young monks, some joining for the long term and some doing their 3 month service as Buddhists. They were all delightful and curious and respectful, as we were in return. Normally, monks do not talk with women but these were young initiates and I guess it was ok. Besides, we were practically old enough to be their grandmothers. The other reason that we saw so few older monks is that many of them who would have been our age or even a little younger had were lost to the Pathet Lao re-education camps, as was the royal family in 1975.
I did my best to describe each wat with the enormous help of Ancient Luang Prabang by Denise Heywood. I wish I’d had this book while I was there. I hope you enjoy my series. If you ever visit Luang Prabang, know that you will be a tourist but also remember that we are really all one family. The world gets smaller every day and I personally hope that is a good thing.