You don’t have to do more than five minutes of research to realise that everybody loves Luang Prabang. It’s the perfect blend of Indochine and French colonial architecture with a serene buddhist undertone and a unique location at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers in Northern Laos. However, in her article ‘Confession: I Can’t Stand Luang Prabang‘ Adventurous Kate describes the “jewel of Indochina” as a place that “makes her skin crawl.” While her opinion is unquestionably valid, I couldn’t help but find this a little extreme. Having just spent four days in Luang Prabang myself, I have taken some time to formulate my own opinion on the items in question and here they are…
The Fashion Show
Trendy ‘Hive Bar’ hosts a nightly fashion show on their beautifully custom-built, outdoor, terraced stages. ‘Ethnik Fashion’ showcases a variety of traditional Lao hill tribe outfits as well as the creations of a local fashion designer. Local teenagers model the outfits five nights a week and in exchange, Hive Bar pays for their education and school fees. Kate’s main problem with this show was the lack of authenticity. The girls showing a little more skin than they normally would and the fact that they were smiling too much. The way I see it is, nobody is claiming that this is traditional Lao life. Of course hill tribe villagers don’t go to trendy bars and parade around on stage in formal wear on normal occasions as part of every day life but then neither do the dairy farmers of Devon… but it doesn’t stop London Fashion Week. In addition, Lao is changing, modernising – slowly but surely. Maybe as these youngsters continue their educations (funded by Hive Bar) they are opening doors for themselves, seeking opportunity and learning the importance of doing so.
After the show (which I found well presented and entertaining) a group of guys took the stage to show off their break dancing skills. Not only were they very talented, you could tell they were having a seriously good time up there. So breakdancing hasn’t been part of Lao tradition for hundreds of years but so what? These guys have serious talent and I can’t help but think that they’re bright enough to realise that their chances of getting talent scouted while collecting sticks on a mountaintop is probably slim to none. In addition, what teenager isn’t interested in the opportunity to have fun doing what they love in front of an audience while getting their school fees paid for? Smart cookies if you ask me.
Next up is The Night Market
Described by Kate as selling beautiful but overpriced merchandise that isn’t representative of clothing worn by your average Lao. I find this an interesting point of view, if a little short sighted. It’s no secret that this market is set up for tourists – nobody is pretending that it’s where locals go to buy things and with an ounce of exploration you can easily stumble across the bustling Phosy Market where the locals do go to buy things. The thing is, the night market is mutually beneficial to both local and tourist. The locals get to use their supreme (and semi-traditional) skills in silk weaving, embroidery and needlework to generate a healthy income for themselves, not to mention helping to grow the economy of their country. On the flip-side, the tourists get to purchase some undeniably beautiful, hand made souvenirs to take home and wear or display with pride. The locals earn over the odds and the tourist feels like they’re getting great value for money. It’s basically a win-win. Western tourists buy elephant print cotton trousers and bangles made out of melted down bombshells not because they are trying to disguise them selves as locals but because they like them and it’s different from their norm. Most Lao people just wear jeans and a button-up shirt. Ok so there’s much more glitter and odd slogans involved but why would you fly all the way to Lao just to return to your own country with a new pair of jeans that were probably made in China anyway? Boring!
Luang Prabang is many things but pretentious it is not. If anything, I would say it’s an honest representation of modern day Lao. It’s historically Lao with a heavy French influence, more buddhist monks than you can shake a handicraft at and it’s life-support is tourism. Just unlike the tourist centres and markets of Bangkok, Luang Prabang does it with style and understanding. Oh… and it also has a bowling alley that serves microwave chocolate popcorn.