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A tourist sticks out in Laos


Story and photos by Marlena Bishop

The first night I arrived in Laos I instantly felt the tourist presence in the city. Of course I myself was a tourist and I was acutely interested in the way locals would interact with me.

I wanted very much to interact with residents on a purely social level. But I found that it was so difficult to extract the economic element from interactions, for I was seen almost always as a customer, my pockets filled with endless currency. Though I wanted to, I couldn’t shake my identity as a tourist.
In Luang Prabang I felt this to be most true, probably because the great majority of visitors to Luang Prabang are all tourists. And since the economic livelihood of the people depends directly on it, they have no alternative conception of Westerners as anything but tourists.

Approximately 44 hours of our three-week winter study trip to Southeast Asia was spent on airplanes. That’s two extra days we could have stayed in Bangkok, Hanoi, or Luang Prabang. Our first flight from Chicago to Tokyo seemed like a daunting 13 hours. Of course we didn’t know our final trip home would last 32 hours. I’d like to brag about the creative ways we passed the time, but honestly, we slept and ate candy. I persevered by conducting personally fulfilling dance parties during the layovers. Bangkok airport lounges saw the most of this booty. But while on the planes, we were provided with many forms of entertainment. My favorite was simply looking out the window. Southeast Asia is a richly diverse geographical area and I sought an aerial view.

Flying to Luang Prabang from Bangkok was especially unique. Unlike our previous flights, we traded jets for propellers and magnitude for modesty. Queuing at the stairs on the runway, my peers effused stockpiled sugar. Our previous affairs with Boeing 747s inspired us to snap a few pictures of the quaint machine and we boarded.

Shortly thereafter, my dance party graduated to airborne status and a late lunch was served. The sun slid down into the west and cut across the tops of each mountain, giving purple haze golden silhouettes. When our descent began, we drifted slowly into the haze.

I could see glittering metal rooftops and inhabited riverbanks. I scanned the ground for a runway or any sign of an airport but found nothing and felt a little nervous. Abruptly, and quickly, the wheels hit the ground.

The topics of our study trip were globalism, spirituality, tourism and contemporary art-making practices. Our mere presence in Luang Prabang—and all our destinations for that matter—was a testimony to ways in which international travel, commerce, and tourism contribute to globalization. It should be noted that we all had the means and political freedom to travel to this region and then move freely between national boundaries.

Lao history itself tells a story of globalization, for it’s dotted with colonial occupation and wars. Early on, Laos and its provinces were colonized and subsumed by the French into French Indochina in 1893 (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). The Indochinese Wars between the Vietnamese nationalists against France, China and the United States began in 1945 and lasted until 1979. During that time, France reoccupied Laos in 1946, and in 1949 Laos gained independence and became the Kingdom of Laos.

Laos entered the second Indochinese war in 1962, also known as the Secret War or the Laotian front, during which the U.S. Army dropped the greatest amount of bombs in its history of operation independently on Laos (totaling nearly three million tons). The United States’ motivation for bombing the hell out of Laos was to terminate the Vietnamese troops’ travel north along the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through Laotian territory. Lao allies were infiltrating and aiding Southern Vietnam and the Viet Cong. The CIA trained 30,000 Laotian tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and Lao allies.

But the nationalist communist party, Pathet Lao, supported by the Soviet Union and Vietnamese communists, toppled the imperial U.S. and French powers, establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. Following the revolution and political reformation, the regime instituted harsh social policies aimed at restructuring and reeducating the people through nationalist sentiment. Subsequently, the economy went dry, cultural sites were neglected, and Luang Prabang was nearly deserted when the people withdrew from the community. Fortunately, Laos reopened itself to the international market, relaxed its economic restrictions and joined the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1997. With the reintroduction came great prosperity.

Since then, 600 buildings have been classified as World Heritage sites by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Pagodas have been restored, monks’ dwellings have been rebuilt, the streets along the Mekong and the Nam Khan river were paved, and specific homes and buildings were restored in the traditional Lao style. The House of Heritage, a shining preserved example of pre-colonial architecture built on stilts, has also been re-erected.

We visited a village on the opposite site of the Mekong, Ban Chang—well known for its pottery craftsmanship—that has also received funding to foster an improvement of its peoples’ practice and worksite.

Our main contact in Luang Prabang was France Morin, the director of an internationally recognized and executed art education project called the Quiet in the Land. The project immerses artists in community-involved, interactive projects, in search of ways to re-establish the relationship of art and community cultural work. Morin has initiated collaborative projects with the Shakers in Maine (1995), children in Salvador, Brazil (1997), and now in Luang Prabang. The over-reaching goal of each project is to mend the incongruities among art, life, and people. The focal points for the project in Luang Prabang are art, spirituality and everyday life.

Ideally, artists participating will first immerse themselves in a primary educational visit, for it is an arts educational program. Following the introductory visit, the artist will return for a second stay and begin working. The program is much more than a transient jaunt through culture and society because each artist takes up residency within the area. The objective is to completely immerse the artist within society and to work with existing artists and craftspeople on collaborative projects.

While visiting the Grand Palace in Luang Prabang, Morin introduced us to a textile exhibition sponsored by the project. It was in fact three different exhibitions. The first was a contest held for woven and embroidered textiles. The stipulations were specific dimensions and use of traditional imagery or context. The participants’ and winners’ pieces were displayed in the first room.

The second exhibition was a collection of traditional clothing from disparate ethnic minorities inhabiting the surrounding Luang Prabang province. This was the most amazing exhibition I saw throughout the entire trip. Each garment varied in age, some were brand new, and some antique. Morin explained that some of the people who submitted garments were confused about how their possessions would be used. Maybe exhibiting their everyday or cherished heirloom clothing was outside their conceptions of its use.

The final room was filled with another collection of textiles that were again submitted by particular artisans of the region. Considerable cash prizes were distributed to the winners.

The Quiet in the Land agenda shares a great deal of its philosophy for improvement, restoration and preservation with UNESCO. What I noticed is that both programs—although very progressive and positive organizations—have largely western, not Laotian origins. There are, however, many Laotian participants and leaders working with each project who have brought their own initiatives to the table. As it so happens, these programs have indirectly—through their improvements and participation with the people of the city—brought a considerable amount of tourism into the town.

It’s arguable that cleaning the town up, organizing its facilities, and refurbishing its cultural sites have made the city more attractive to Western tastes and standards. Restoring buildings with new paint and stucco, paving streets, organizing better sewage systems, restoring cultural sites and improving the facilities at the night and permanent day market sites, all make Luang Prabang more accessible and beautiful for touring.

Between 1996 and 1998, the annual rate of tourists increased from 18,000 to 44,000 people. There are 60,000 residents in Luang Prabang. And now there are 45 hotels (increased from six in 1993). Tourism is the main source of income for the city, catalyzed by the restoration of buildings, cultural sites, and commercial infrastructure. Set into motion by UNESCO and the Quiet in the Land project, these improvements attract attention in the international, socially conscious art scene. Morin herself has written extensively about her projects in well-informed art publications like Art Journal in addition to compiling publications exclusively for the project. Selective groups of artists also make their pilgrimages to participate in her program.

To enter Ban Chang, we ascended the long stone staircase from the western banks of the Mekong. At the top a man sat behind a desk and collected a fee to enter. Our group wandered throughout the village and then convened at the site where the pottery making takes place. We watched men carry huge waist-level pots down into an underground pit for curing, and while watching the process, a large swarm of children gathered around us soliciting small elephant figurines and tiny pots of their own. The figurines were cute, but the children were cuter.

Overwhelmed by cuteness, we counted our money and collaborated on acquiring exact change. Morin explained to us that each time they visit the village; they buy these trinkets for 50 cents. I don’t think any left without an elephant, or five.

Then I walked over to a tent wherein I found a group of men carving ornamentation onto the side of a pot. I spotted a kid spinning out one of the small pots on a pottery wheel, and sat down to watch. The kid saw me watching him and invited me to give it a try. I was humbled and delighted, but did a horrible job. I mostly watched him with detail while he shaped the clay like an expert. I thanked him for the opportunity, washed my hands, waved goodbye, and exited the tent. All of a sudden he came jogging after me demanding money: “Ten thousand kip… lady…” I chuckled, shook my head, politely said no thank you, and kept walking. The boy trailed me almost all the way to the river, even stopping to complain to an older woman. I think she told him something to the effect of, ”Knock it off. Where’s your mom?”

To the boy, this was a business exchange but to me it was a
social interaction. I didn’t want to be seen as a tourist anymore. I just wanted to be a regular person amongst other people. But it was impossible, because I was a tourist. I was from a far away place, staying in an expensive hotel, spending my cash at the night market, and walking around town taking pictures. There was no way I could blend in either. I’m a white woman from America. What, did I think I could disappear into the landscape? Who was I kidding? When people of the town looked at me, they saw an opportunity for business.

During the last days in Laos I grew weary of my position as a rich Westerner. I compared myself with the people of Luang Prabang and began fostering immense guilt. I tried desperately to reconcile the imbalance in what I thought was economic status, mobility and power. At times I would buy more at the night market than I actually needed because I felt bad. A pair of what I like to call “cat slippers” that I brought back is evidence of this.

I felt ashamed to be present in this context as a tourist who brazenly flashes wealth just by being able to travel there. The last day in Luang Prabang was set aside as a free day. I spent time alone sauntering through the city and took no photos, bought nothing, and stopped every so often to just sit.

Sitting on the stonewall embankment above the Nam Khan river across from our hotel, I watched as a group of boys jumped into the earthen brown waters over and over again. The fun seemed to be in jumping out and back in continuously. At one point the group collected onshore and teased one boy remaining in the water as he was swept down stream. I smiled and chuckled to myself. He yelled back, got out, and a chase ensued.

I got such a joy out of simply sitting and watching people. I saw young men and women riding motorbikes across town in tandem, chatting between the moving groups. Sometimes drivers on different bikes comversed and other times the drivers and passengers on the back were all conversing at once in a little group. I got such a kick out of this new style of in-transit banter.

After a week of slight homesickness and alienation as a tourist, I suddenly felt at home because I transcended the fields of separation that I placed between us earlier: Poverty, power and global inequality aside, I saw the people of Luang Prabang as people. I stopped my internal pity plea for justice when I saw their happiness and contentment.

It was impossible to try to fade into the background because I can’t change who I am. Instead I accepted the complexity of the differences between Lao people and me. I set aside all of my knowledge of the current situation: the capitalism and tourism, war and the political and social injustices of Lao history, the relationship of UNESCO and the Quiet in the Land projects to tourism and cultural preservation. And saw the Lao people as themselves, not as people inflicted by global conflict and injustice. It was a process of removing the lenses I used for judgment and evaluation. I quit trying to compare them with the rest of the world and everything that I believed to be fair. And I started listening instead of speaking.

Only then could I see, hear, and feel the true nature of Luang Prabang. Perhaps this is what participating in the Quiet in the Land project is like, being humble amongst a field of culture and knowledge.

MARCH 2006