LUANG PRABANG, Laos — The humorous tag for Lao PDR is “Lao—please don’t rush,” but after two days on a boat, I found myself unable to slow my bolt through the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, eager as I was to get to Vietnam. But that didn’t stop me from spending almost a week in the “mysterious” and “forgotten” land of Laos (as the travelers’ narratives usually call it.)
After our bus ride down the river, our somewhat irritable and frazzled collection of river rats pulled up to the wharf in Luang Prabang, Lao’s old royal capital until the communists took over in 1975. The golden stupa on the top of Mount Phou Si glowed warmly in the dying light of the day, while the usual touts tried to attract us to various hotels and guesthouses. Lots of offers of “cheap rooms!” and “free wi-fi!” surrounded me, but ignoring them, I trudged up the hill and made my way to the Hotel of the Trois Nagas, a boutique joint that was a bit overpriced ($200/night! In Laos!) but a lovely tonic to two days on the Mekong.
I chose the Trois Nagas because it was down the street from the Wat Sen, one of the many Buddhist temples that has made Luang Prabang a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (more on this later.) In the wee, early hours, monks and novices, clad in burnt sienna robes and bright yellow sashes, embark on the traditional procession through town, while Buddhist faithful kneel to donate handfuls of sticky rice and other food into monks’ alms bowls. I was eager to see the the monk’s silent procession down Sakkhaline Street, so I roused myself at 5:30 a.m.
It lived up to its billing as a mystical, spiritual moment. As the hour progressed, the blackness of night gave way to the cool blues of the early dawn and then, off in the cool gloom, a splash of orange against the darkness. The first in a line of monks and novices, some barely big and old enough to carry their bowls, trooped down the street from the temples, the only sound the padding of their bare feet on the concrete sidewalks — and the clicking of camera shutters. I certainly wasn’t alone in capturing the moment in pixels.
I worried about not having a donations; I didn’t feel quite right about taking photographs and giving nothing back, even if I’m not Buddhist. So I paid a street vendor for a packet of sticky rice to give to the monks. Then I asked her to handle the donations so I could take pics. She seemed confused, then delighted, as she was probably going to do this anyway, and she got a few thousand spare kips for doing what she did every morning. So she got cash, was able to make merit, as the Buddhists say, and I got to take pictures while feeling OK about it. Win-win, right?
Not really. Apparently, paying a street vendor for the monk’s food is one of the most exploitive thing one can do in Luang Prabang. (I should really read Lonely Planet more closely.) The monks don’t eat the food provided by the vendors, as they’re not sure of the sincerity in the giving or, as important, of its quality. Lonely Planet reports monks sometimes falling ill from the food given by tourists. Some of the monasteries have gone so far as to suggest ending the practice, but in true heavy-handed fashion, the government in Vientiane said if the monks did that, they would simply replace them with locals in robes to keep the tourist revenue coming in.
The monks have, so far, acquiesced, but they must feel like a zoo attraction at times. I tried to keep a respectful distance while photographing, but I couldn’t help but notice a resigned look on many of their faces as they accepted the sticky rice packets from a line of tourists who appeared to be Chinese. This line of older women had been organized by another photographer who had no compunctions about inserting himself into the procession, or into the monks’ faces. At the end, despite a nice breakfast with Ted and Bethany, I felt distinctly uneasy about my own role in this. Were my actions encouraging the commodification of what for many is a genuine act of worship?
Later, the next day, I was somewhat put at ease after my conversation with Jailee, a 17-year-old novice monk I met after I had climbed the hundreds of steps to the top of Mount Phou Si. When I spotted him, Jailee was studying Buddhist literature in the shade of a little pagoda. I asked if I could take his portrait. He readily agreed and we struck up a conversation that ranged from the monks’ procession to travel to the state of completion of the new World Trade Center in New York. In fact, that was his first question to me after discovering I had lived in New York.
“Is the new building at the site of 9⁄11 completed yet?” he asked.
I was taken aback. No one, and I mean no one, had asked me if 1 WTC has been completed yet. What was New York like? Was I there on 9⁄11? That’s what I usually get. I confessed I didn’t quite know but thought it was one or two years away from completion. He seemed to chew on that for a moment, and then wanted to know what was taking so long.
“That’s what everyone was asking, too,” I replied. Jailee laughed at the joke.
I asked him if he felt the tourists taking pictures of him and his brothers in the early mornings was exploitive. Did he feel like a zoo animal?
“No,” he said, after what I had quickly come to realize was his customary thoughtful pause before answering a question. “We are happy to show people our religion. But this is our faith. It’s not a show.”
While that wasn’t exactly unambiguous, he did clarify that the food donated by the faithful (and the tourists) was not the only food the monks ate. They received many donations at the various temples and monasteries in town and, in fact, mostly ate that. I showed him some of the images I’d taken the previous morning (see below) and he gave his approval.
Leaving Jailee to his studies, I wandered further up Mount Phou Si until encountering a group of slovenly Brits at the very top in the shadow of the stupa drinking and spilling Beer Lao, talking loudly about their exploits the night before and, in general, earning disapproving scowls from the several Laotians who had come up the mountaintop to pay their respects. Hard to blame the locals. I was deeply embarrassed, and made every effort to distance myself from the jerks.
But their behavior brings up an interesting thought about Luang Prabang. It’s a World Heritage Site, which UNESCO says was awarded for being an “outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries.” But in truth, it feels a bit like Lao Disneyland, with acres of street merchants setting up shop in a picturesque night market selling, literally, tons of tourist junk that probably no one in Laos actually uses. Exquisitely and identically carved wooden elephant heads? Check. Snakes artfully arranged in a bottle? Sure. T-shirts that say “I (heart) Laos”? Seriously?
Make no mistake, Luang Prabang is lovely, charming and probably fully deserving of its World Heritage Site status. But let’s not kid ourselves. This is not authentic Lao PDR. I would venture that most Laotians don’t live in lovingly restored French colonial estates with lots of teak wood for floorboards. And they sure don’t spend the majority of their time lounging in French cafés along Sakkhaline Street. The per capita GDP is just $2,768, according to the International Monetary Fund, sandwiching it between Pakistan and Sudan. The river villages with the children in the dirty clothes and bare feet is more indicative of the “real” Lao PDR than some cosseted touristic city.
I’m just not sure what to make of it all, because here is a genuine cultural site that’s been made tourist-friendly and sanitized. For instance, there seems to be no real explanation at any of the historical sites as to what happened to the Lao royal family after the communists took over in 1975. Spoiler alert: While seizing power, the Pathet Lao, backed by the North Vietnamese Army, arrested the entire royal family and sent them to a “re-education” camp where they later died from malnutrition and lack of medical care.
So, to sum up, Luang Prabang, the former royal capital, is being developed as a tourist destination by the very government that killed off the royal family. If this strikes you as a little cynical, well, welcome to the club. Along with government pressure on the monks and the role it had in killing off the very embodiment of the culture it’s now promoting, I can’t help but feel complicit in some kind of artificial reality. I’m not quite sure what the proper response to this bit of cognitive dissonance should be, other than possibly boycott visiting Luang Prabang. However, most of the merchants in Luang Prabang were like merchants everywhere: dependent on their customers, and it’s (probably) not their fault the government is cashing in on UNESCO’s imprimatur. So that seems like punishing the people who deserve it the least.
After a couple of days in Luang Prabang, and letting these thoughts rattle around my head, I kind of wished I’d taken the blue pill. So, to clear my head and get my visa for Vietnam, I hopped on a bus to the sleepy capital of Vientiane.