LUANG PRABANG, Laos–It is officially described as the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia, a bygone seat of kings tucked into a remote river valley of Laos. Luang Prabang weaves a never-never land spell on many a visitor with its tapestry of French colonial villas and Buddhist temples draped in a languid atmosphere.
But most of the locals don’t live here anymore. They began an exodus from this seeming Shangri-La after their hometown was listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and sold itself wholesale to tourism.
It’s not an uncommon pattern at some of the 1,031 sites worldwide designated as places of “outstanding universal value” by the U.N. cultural agency: The international branding sparks mass tourism, residents move out as prices escalate or grab at new business opportunities, hastening the loss of their hometown’s authentic character to hyper-commercialization. But locals may also prosper and some moribund communities are injected with renewed energy.
“If you open the door you will have some fresh wind, but you will also get mosquitoes,” says Prince Nithakhong Tiaoksomsanith, a leader in preserving Luang Prabang’s artistic heritage.
Since UNESCO helped lay down the town’s welcome mat, its longtime residents have been replaced by wealthy Lao outsiders, an ever-growing influx of tourists and enough French, Australian, American and other expatriates catering to their needs to have locals rhyme Luang Prabang with “Meuang Falang” – meaning either French or Western town.
Luang Prabang’s rich architectural heritage, protected by UNESCO’s regulations, has been spared the eradication of countless historic sites across Asia. But virtually every home and mom-and-pop store in the historic center has been converted into a guesthouse, restaurant, cafe, bar or travel agency. The former prison was recently transformed into a luxury hotel and the French Cultural Center has become the Hibiscus Massage Parlor.
Scenes of workaday life are rare because as prices shot up – a small plot of land that sold for US$8,000 three years ago now goes for US$120,000 – residents moved into surrounding areas, selling or renting their properties to the newcomers. As former UNESCO consultant and longtime resident Francis Engelmann has said, “We have saved Luang Prabang’s buildings but we have lost its soul.
Source: The China Post