The paradoxical consequences of becoming UNESCO world heritage, the case of Luang Prabang
Sanne van Oosten
By naming a site UNESCO World heritage the goal is to preserve the heritage site as it is, so future generations can enjoy it as much as possible. Paradoxically, nothing in the World could set more changes in to motion than being called World-heritage. While preserving all of the tangible heritage, a lot of the intangible heritage goes lost. The unique ambiance a place can bring about can become irreversibly replaced by a new touristic mood that could be found in touristic places all over the world. Visiting Luang Prabang in northern Laos is a good example of this.
Luang Prabang is a quiet town that was named UNESCO World Heritage in 1995. Although it doesn’t have many touristic highlights, many people go there for the ambiance the town brings. Tasty food, immaculate guesthouses, many monasteries inhabited by countless monks in saffron robes, French colonial architecture and all the local handicrafts you could ever dream of buying.
Even though the town is still a very pleasant place to visit for a tourist, many locals lament all the changes that have taken place with the influx of tourism. A restaurant we regularly ate at had the following explanation printed in the menu:
“Basic advice and requests: … This is NOT Ibiza! Nor is it Vang Vieng… Please tread lightly on the 1,000’s of years of living culture here. Always dress modestly in the city. Have fun, but refrain from loud boisterous behavior in city streets, especially after 10pm. Also, this is not Thailand, there is no sex industry and you can only legally have sex with locals if you marry them”.
With Laos being a cheap tourist destination, it doesn’t attract the most well-mannered tourists at all times. Many people who have become adjusted to a rhythm of parties, beer and sun on their bare skins parade through the streets of Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng, referred to in the quote above, is a town 7 hours from Luang Prabang that has been completely transformed to a party walhalla for those who are so inclined. People can rent a tube and go down the river whilst hopping countless bars living off tourists and tourists alone. The mood is somewhat raunchy, and that is exactly what a lot of people like about it. Luang Prabang, however, is completely different.
An important local tradition is the “Tak Baad”, also known as alms giving to the monks. At sunrise the local monks will walk through the street whilst being given food and other donations in their alms bowls by locals. Tourists like to participate with this as well. According to some locals this has transformed the “Tak Baad” into a ‘circus’, or even a ‘zoo’. This frustration is well illustrated by another explanation printed in our menu:
“Don’t treat the monks like monkeys in a zoo. Be respectrul if you take photos. NEVER touch them. Observe, but don’t participate in the morning ‘takbat’ almsgiving, unless with a local and you prepare the offering yourself. Do NOT buy anything from the morning vendors! Soon there will be more Lao people selling sticky rice to tourists than there are Lao people giving it to the monks themselves!”
This explanation voices a deep-felt frustration with all the changes that mass tourism has brought about. However, there is always a different side to the story. Since tourism has brought so many tourists to Luang Prabang the prices have been rising, especially the rent. Since they don’t have controlled rent, many locals are forced to move out of the city, making space for yet another guesthouse, restaurant, bar or shop for handicrafts. We’ve even heard people say that they are happy that tourists are participating in the alms giving at sunrise, because there are hardly any locals left in town.
Luang Prabang has become a protected space where one tries to control the irreversible flow of time. But nothing could have ever brought about more change in Luang Prabang than becoming World Heritage. Luang Prabang is not preserved but, in fact, a completely new ambiance is re-invented by experts and local heritage offices. It is still a very pleasant place to visit, but you can’t help but think, the unique ambiance is gone.
Soon the town-centre will be emptied of its inhabitants. Locals will still be selling their houses and going in the suburbs. The monks will have completely left the town. Every day it is becoming more and more like Disneyland on the Mekong. UNESCO’s goal is preservation, but all that is really seen in Luang Prabang is cultural loss. The exact same thing that UNESCO is fighting against.