Tucked deep along the popular and wildly promising backpacker routes of South East Asia lies Luang Prabang. This tiny capital of a former princely state which merged with two other little kingdoms to form Laos opens itself unconditionally to the backpacker, the tourist and the fantasy seeker, all alike. No questions asked, beyond the necessary ones at the immigration. The thrill for the backpacker and the rich tourist perhaps lies in being able to walk over and taking for granted this little nation’s sovereignty, its own voice. The traveler with his stash of dollars can get away with anything – ride motorbikes without driving license, move about brazenly in utter disregard for people’s customs, practices or legal regulations and any go forth with any imaginable activity that might promise an inexperienced thrill which the tourist wouldn’t have dared to think of in his own country or traveling in the more prosperous and developed countries of the world. But in Luang Prabang, just go ahead and do it. Here, the weight of a dollar is more than people’s words. The tourist’s fantasies of every variety can be realized here for a pittance, until the pleasure seeker drops out satiated or bored.
Historian Benedict Anderson passed away last week. One of his books Imagined communities was a part of reading in grad school. Curiosity made me look up his other writings and I realized that he wrote of his trip to Luang Prabang during the Songkhran Festival in 1998. ( The excerpts in this post are from the essay published in LRB here.) Reading that I realized that it was twenty five years since his trip that I crossed the Mekong river and into its border town of Huay Xai. Three hundred kilometers up, through the lush mountains of this former Lan Xang kingdom, on the bend of the Mekong lay the endearing Luang Prabang town, home to Prabang Buddha and to some of the most affable people of the subcontinent.
Back to Anderson’s account, it appears that he was a keen eyed traveler more than a historian. His travel accounts tend to be mischievous, sarcastic and incisive in parts. In 1994 Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In the four years since then, Anderson notes the changes.
In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.
This absence of a Hilton, Hyatt, Burger King, McDonald’s etc is remarkable. The town’s remote location is evident in the fact that even twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, there still are none of these monuments of globalized existence and faux-modernity. The absence of west-styled fast food restaurants and five-start hotels is the exact reason why my friend and I felt a helpless attraction to this town and its homely feel. As Asian travelers with our own countries run over by the global food and hospitality chains, which are constantly road-rolling the peculiar and characteristic identity of the places, we felt Luang Prabang was indeed one of the last remaining places yet to be conquered by this homogenizing force.
Back to Anderson’s piece, he examines the ‘preservation’ effort of Luang Prabang’s culture and lifestyle with the World Heritage status. The following lines make for a remarkable critique which in retrospect do seem apt –
‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.
Through the course of history, Laos seems to be a country pushed and shoved by its neighbours as well as powerful nations. Now, the baton seems to have passed on to the backpackers and tourists to do the same. However, the place still manages to stand apart as a very different experience – culturally and geographically. The mighty Mekong is an overbearing presence. The Buddhist monks still on their early morning walk to receive alms from the townsfolk. The barges ferrying people and vehicles across the river. High school kids volunteering at the National Museum to inform visitors about the artifacts, folktales and the Ramayana stories in English. They are absolutely adorable.
Luang Prabang’s riverfront is one of the prettiest to spend a leisure evening tucked in a small corner of the world. With its setting, it does seem to drive this literal feeling of being far out in the world. Especially, with the time it takes to reach this place. With the absence of factories, heavy machinery, high-rise buildings, large automobiles, mass transport systems and especially high human density, the place manages to immediately make an impression of being in a place which is out of the usual, fast paced cities that the global traveler has routed himself through, to reach here.
The fate of the royalty of Luang Prabang seems like typical of the colonial era. Either the King becomes a vassal or banished from his land if he tends to be assertive. Rest of the royal family especially the Princes are groomed in the colonizer’s capital abroad, in this case, the royalty being groomed in France. King Sisavangvong gets the nickname of being the ‘playboy King’ perhaps because of his fifty children and fifteen wives. His palace, which was once a French chateau is now the national museum. The night market on the boulevard in front of the palace is a truer picture of the modern day Luang Prabang and not the uninspiring and somewhat oddly cobbled artifacts at the museum.
Laos and Luang Prabang is best seen in its night market in my opinion. It is where the common Laotian surfaces, who lives a life in the countryside perhaps and turns up at the market to make a buck out of the souvenir hunting tourist. Reading Anderson’s account from 1998, his description of the night market reads as a very fine prose and stays remarkably unchanged to my eyes twenty five years since –
The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face.
High colonialism looms large on several of the former colonies. I see it unfolding every time a tourist treats the country as his ancestral property and brazenly goes about town with a sense of entitlement as though the people are obliged to serve him. It only feels sad that there is little being done to by the way of the tourist’s own sensitivity as well as from the international multi-lateral organizations which can assist Laos in developing a sharp and sensitive tourism policy similar to the one which helps European countries to keep the visitor subjected to their conditions and not the other way around.
Twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, Luang Prabang does manage to retain the charm that he spoke of. It also appears to have come further down along the road which threatens its unique culture and lifestyle that Anderson pointed to. The value of such travel pieces I realize is immense in creating reference points in the history to at least be cognizant of what we will lose or have lost along the decades.
Meanwhile, I hope Benedict Anderson rests in peace.