Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Luang Prabang in Laos

Luang PrabangThe Ancient town of Luang Prabang, which lies in the center of Laos, has been described as one of the most beautiful and preserved towns in Southeast Asia. In 1512 King Visounarat got Buddha image - the Pha Bang - as a gift from the Khmer monarchy, that is where the town became known as Luang (Great or Royal) Phabang (Prabang). Luang Prabang was the capital of Lane Xang (Laos) for many years until King Phothisarat moved the royal seat to Vientiane in 1545.

There are 34 Buddhist temples among colonial French and Chinese architecture, all nicely located within surrounding green mountains.

The Mekong River, which frames the western border of the town, is still used as transportation link within Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and other important cities along the Mekong River.
Temple Its cultural traditions, rituals and artwork, which includes temple murals, woodcarving and pottery, make Luang Prabang an attractive cultural tourism destination and an ecotourism hub for the whole region, which allows visitors to do hiking, tracking, elephant trekking, kayaking and other adventurous activities in a spectacular natural environment with possibilities which cope for a wide range of interests. The town of Luang Prabang was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 due to its cultural and natural features. Luang Prabang is accessible by air directly from Bangkok, Vientiane and Chiang Mai, but also overland travel is an option from all directions. There is also a regular boat service on the Mekong River available.

Most of the visitors to Luang Prabang enjoy its cultural and historical heritage, stay in nice renovated Old townguesthouses and small lodges for 20 to 30$ per night. However, there are also quite a few backpackers with an interest in Luang Prabang’s culture as well, but the will also enjoy some more adventurous excursions and day trips to the countryside of the ancient town. Laos is strongly promoted as an ecotourism destination in Asia, whit a lot of interesting national and international ecotourism projects and developments going on. A quick search in Google for “ecotourism” brought up a 150’000 hits and 108’000 hits for “sustainable tourism”.
The amount of visitors tripled within the last 10 years from around 400’000 in 1996 to about 1, 3 Mio in 2006 according to the Lao National Tourism Administration. About 1 Mio of the customers are Asians, where the visitor numbers from Thailand (600’000) is the biggest, followed by Vietnam (170’000) and China with 50’000 old lady in luang prabangvisitors in a year. China has now allowed its citizens to travel more freely to Laos. Therefore, Chinese tourists numbers to Laos are expected to rise and will probably account for 25% of the total number of visitors to Laos in the future. Europeans or Westerners account for about 200’000 tourists.

The pressures on Laos to modernize and develop its tourist infrastructure is rapidly increasing, there is a big demand to cater for an increasing amount of package tourism, which will have a significant impact on the development of Luang Prabang.

Therefore, the inscription of Luang Prabang on the World Heritage List in 1995 happened just at the right time, to preserve the town of Luang Prabang. With new roads being build from Vientiane and the Chinese border, the small town of Luang Prabang was about to rapidly expand and transform it - not an entirely positive development.
monk There is now a strict zoning law, which ensures that the character of the town is preserved by restricting advertising billboards and decreeing that no out-of-character buildings can be constructed, which means, that no photo-finishing shops or fast-food outlets can be opened in the old town. Big tourist buses are not allowed within the old quarter of the town. Luang Prabang promotes eco-friendly tourism in different ways, such as reinforcing the visitors to walk or ride a bicycle to explore Luang Prabang, closing roads to make space for the morning and night markets, and setting and enforcing speed limits within the whole town (quite unique in Asia).

There are very good maps available, which make it a pleasure to walk around to visit the different attractions of the towns. All attractions are also well explained in Laotian, French and English language. There are many good web sites and books, with a lot of useful information on Luang Prabang available, so that the visitors can inform themselves easily. In the town are also some very good local tour guides available, so the cultural interested tourists can get there information from locals as well.

Market In the UNESCO plan, there are three zones: the old quarter, a peripheral zone, and natural zones along the Mekong River. The main problem is now how to maintain Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site and accommodate the fast growing number of tourists that will be attracted.

The Luang Prabang authorities are handling increased tourism well so far. The plan is not to build new hotels, but rather modify existing mansions for use as hotels. The whole area has a lot of natural attractions within a short distance, such as caves, waterfalls, jungle and rivers and the plan of the Laos authorities is, to further develop sustainable tourism by involving local communities in the over all tourism development of the area, but also to direct some of the tourist to the neighboring attractions to take some pressure of Luang Prabang.
My recommendation is, to raise some of the entrance fees of the attractions for foreign visitors, which may take a little bit pressure of the attractions by reducing the amount of visitors to them. With the so collected money the local authorities would have the choice to renovate some public buildings, such as schools and government buildings, which will further improve the image of the town. Then, there are a few hotel developments well underway about 5 to 10 km outside of the town. I suggest providing some shuttle bus or other public transport to accommodate for the visitors need to go out to town, to prevent them of using private taxis and motorbikes. Then, I think, that the roads of the old quarter should and could be closed during the day time for private traffic to implement a pedestrian zone.

Laos has done a lot to improve its tourism facilities and to make it easier to obtain Visas for tourists, therefore tourism will further grow. Especially, when the fast growing and powerful neighbor China starts to travel, I think, tourism in Laos and basically in the whole region will change dramatically.

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