Wanting more seems to be a human condition. Especially below a certain standard of living. Clearly we could all stand to learn something from wise, old sages (are there young sages?) who live a simple life in basic conditions. Perhaps those few enlightened individuals cause us to romanticize basic conditions, even when they’re experienced by those whose goals are more common – making a living, providing for a family, getting an education.
I don’t begrudge anyone the benefits of development. I understand why, when Wal*Mart came to my town in the 90’s, the voices of those who love getting “Always Low Prices. Always” and love to “Save Money. Live Better” and want “Low Prices. Every day. On everything” drown out those who protest, “But what about all the small businesses it’s killing? What about the fact that all that money goes out of the community to Denver-based banks? What about the sweatshops used to stock the store with goods?”
And so it goes everywhere in the world. I think my French friend was attempting to address this issue when he lamented the “touristic”-ness in the commercial district of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines. Though the faces around us were mostly Filipinos, he was very upset to see so many clean, tidy, decorated restaurants and brightly lit signs gracing the fronts of modern businesses along the newly paved road. Only when we got to a poor, run-down, (undeveloped) neighborhood did he feel better.
I actively try not to be a proud tourist who pretends not to participate in the tourist scene. If I’m here, I’m participating – good and bad, like it or not. It’s interesting to come back to SE Asia after three years. Lots of changes. Lots of development. Streets are cleaner, there is less pollution… Arguably everyone, especially locals, are benefiting from these changes. And in many places, the progress doesn’t seem to be tourist-inspired.
Udon Thani is the big city in Northern Thailand where Pat and I landed after our stint helping with the earth bag house. We were pleased as pie to find sushi joints completely devoid of farangs (white foreigners), beautiful parks with walking paths, Chinese temples (and Thai temples), a park stage with a fitness instructor calling out steps into a microphone, and a commercial development full of fountains that are gorgeous at night. It was all being enjoyed by mostly locals and a few tourists. But questions about any grandiose development and what it means for our collective future quickly arise. With these thoughts on my mind, I headed to Laos with Pat.
Our projections about the next few months convinced us this was the only chance we’d have to see this part of SE Asia without backtracking and burning precious time. Our first destination was Luang Prabang, a pretty, provincial, former capital from the days of a French-controlled Laos. With the new addition of an airport (development!), the city has turned into Disneyland for adults (tourists). The prices on everything have doubled as tourists with more money and less interest in following local customs flood the area. You’ve got a one in ten chance of passing a local on the street. That’s a nine-in-ten chance of breezing by another tourist. And 40,000 kip ($5) says they’ll be toting an enormous camera. I’m not saying tourism is bad. As a tourist, I can’t fairly say that, can I? I do support tourism that co-exists with a place and its people, but I struggle to endorse tourism that co-opts an area. My mantra: live as the locals do. Don’t erase what makes a place unique in order to feel more comfortable.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming is a perfect example of a place co-opted by tourists. A branch of my family lived there for years and years when it was just another Wyoming cowboy town (albeit situated right next to the most stunning, picturesque mountains you’ve ever seen). Now it’s become the favorite stomping ground for millionaires who balk to find themselves among people who chew tobacco, drop the g at the end of words, don’t make a fuss over what they wear, and eat plenty of casseroles. The folks with money were quick to replace Village Inn eateries and Safeway grocery stores with Four-Star restaurants and Industrial Organic food shopping experiences. I have several Jackson Hole friends and acquaintances who aren’t millionaires. (And they feel Industrial Organic is a step up from Safeway – that is to say that they benefit somewhat from the changes brought by the co-opting folks.) What has it been like for them to live in this co-opted place? To survive on their jobs as guides, service workers, scientists, and artists, they now have to live ten to a two bedroom house. Some live in the warehouses where their employers store gear.
I worry that the kind of tourism in Luang Prabang has created a Jackson Hole situation – a community not at all reflective of the history and the people who lived there before it was “discovered” by folks who would rather mold the world to suit their comfort zone versus “doing as the Romans do.” Now Jackson Hole is merely a playground for the rich. And so is Luang Prabang.
Will this keep me from being filled with awe for the beauty of the tree-lined streets and well-kept hotels in this Laotian city? No. Will I enjoy the stunning French-colonial architecture any less? No. Does it make the daily procession of monks receiving alms any less impressive? No. (Although I do think rude tourists interrupting the procession and ignoring important cultural taboos in the name of their perfect vacation photo deserve to be beaten over the head with their two-thousand dollar cameras.) And since being in Luang Prabang means being fully entangled in tourist traps and witnessing hourly cultural desecrations, will I come back here or encourage anyone else to visit? No, probably not.
You want to experience the “real” Wyoming? It’s not in Jackson Hole anymore. You want to experience the “real” Laos? It’s not in Luang Prabang anymore. Genuinely want tips on where to go, in Laos or Wyoming, instead? Email me! ♣
Pictures here of Udon Thani (mentioned above).
– See squat toilet demonstrations, Thai Ronald McDonald, silly face photos with my favorite Norwegian, and my first all-you-can-eat-in-90-minutes buffet.
A link to Luang Prabang photos to appear in the next entry.