Paan, local tour guide | Luang Prabang, Laos | December 17, 2009
A native of Luang Prabang, Paan has been a local tour guide since Laos opened up to tourism in 1999-2000. At the time she was studying English at a teacher’s training college at night and guiding local tours during the day. She was recruited by the same travel company both her father and husband were working at to cover for a shortage in English-speaking local guides.
About Luang Prabang
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, Luang Prabang is one of the main tourist destinations in Laos. Situated by the Mekong River and surrounded by lush green mountains, the town is famous for its ancient temples and historic colonial architecture.
LPT: What changes do you see around Luang Prabang since tourism started?
Paan: Because our country opened to tourism in 1999-2000, I can see the changes. In the beginning there wasn’t much change. We still had a beautiful city, traditional houses and not much traffic, you know. It was beautiful, no plastic bags on the streets. We didn’t have many restaurants or hotels. At that time we had less than 10 hotels, I think, and had about 30-40 guesthouses in the city.
And later on because we opened up our country, more people knew about Laos and Luang Prabang became famous and we started a Night Market. We didn’t have the Night Market before. What we had before was the Day Time Market and we had vegetables and food for the local people.
So then UNESCO opened the Night Market, particularly for the hill tribe people. The hill tribe people used to live in the hills and they farmed. They were hard working on the farm and did slash and burn farming so that destroyed the environment. Our government tried to do sustainable agriculture, so they moved the small villages where there were no roads, no hospitals, and no schools down to the low land.
With different minority groups, we have different cultures and because we’re opening to tourism, we can show our beautiful cultures. At the same time, like community based tourism projects, we can help support the local people in the villages. That’s why UNESCO set up the Hill Tribe Market, right at the place where we have the Night Market.
Most of the people selling at the market made the things themselves. After finishing their farm work, the local farmers would do their weaving and handicraft work and sell them there to make more income. Because if you’re a farmer, sometimes you have bad weather or sometimes your crop is not so good, so that’s why (selling handicrafts at the market). It’s like a family helping each other.
LPT: So economically, tourism definitely has influenced Luang Prabang.
What about culturally? Do you see any cultural things that have been influenced by tourism?
Paan: Yes, I think now, it’s popular for teenagers to learn about different western cultures. We have a beautiful culture in Laos but our government still controls Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is a small little town so we have to have long hair and we’re not allowed to cut our hair short if you’re a woman.
Paan: Yeah, young Lao women.
LPT: Even now?
Paan: Yeah, even now. You have to leave your hair long and wear traditional sarongs and shirts, like a traditional shirt. But now, it’s hard to make and find traditional clothes because it’s quite expensive because they’re hand made. Now there are cheap shirts from Thailand and China and they’re quite nice, so it doesn’t matter for the tops. You have to cover your shoulders. And for the bottoms, traditional sarongs have to cover your knees.
LPT: But does the government still enforce that?
Paan: Yeah, when we’re at school or work, you don’t cut your hair short so most people have long hair. When you go to work or into the office, or government office, you wear something to cover your shoulders and knees.
LPT: So when tourists come to Luang Prabang and they wear clothes like shorts or tank tops, how do local people feel about that?
Paan: We feel bad and we feel shame because we never do that in our country, especially in our culture. We don’t do that, we’re always polite and respect each other and respect our culture. Especially when we do traditional religious ceremonies, we take our shoes off and dress nicely. And every time we say “hello”, we join our hands like a lotus flower and bow our heads to give respect to each other. So we feel very shameful when we see people like that. I’m a tour guide and I see people do that and I feel very sad because of my culture.
Now our government is trying to control it, especially the tourism administration in Luang Prabang; we’re trying to control it. In most of the temples we’ve put up signs. We have a board and sign stand saying that when you go into the temple, you shouldn’t wear your hat because it’s impolite, you have to take your shoes off and you have to dress nicely to respect our religion – Theravada Buddhism.
LPT: If tourists are dressing inappropriately, why don’t the local people just tell them?
Paan: Because Laos is a Buddhist country, maybe we’re different from other countries. The French used to say Lao people are laid back and like we’re “listening to the rice grow”. Also, Lao people are very shy, you know…very shy to talk to other people.
For me, every time I see this, I tell them. At the monastery, the problem is most Lao people don’t have a lot of education and most don’t speak good English so they don’t know how to explain or tell them (the tourists). So sometimes it’s very hard for local people, especially ones who work at the temple because they’re people from the local villages, elderly and don’t speak English. It’s very hard to control that.
LPT: And what about environmentally? How has tourism influenced Luang Prabang environmentally?
Paan: I can see in the last few years the environment in Luang Prabang is changing. Because with more tourists, it’s making the city dirty; especially with plastics, you know, and throwing them around.
Because we have many schools around the city, the Luang Prabang government is asking the teachers to take the children to pick up garbage around the streets Friday afternoons. They’re given plastic bags to put the garbage they pick up in it. One school goes around the Nam Khan River and the other goes to the Mekong River side, so they do this about once a week. Our government has also prepared rubbish bins and we have rubbish trucks to do pick ups.
But it’s quite hard to control at night time because we don’t have security guards and policemen to look after places. I mean, not yet because our government doesn’t have enough money now so maybe in the future it will be better, I think. I started seeing this already in the last few months that people started doing this. It’s getting better compared to last year.
LPT: Do you have any ideas on how to make tourism better in Luang Prabang?
Paan: Yeah, I think to make tourism better, visitors should respect our culture and religion when they’re visiting our country. Maybe the government can teach the local people how to conserve our culture and religion and educate the tourists what they can do to respect our culture. Maybe have a little (guide) book placed in restaurants, hotels or in temples so they can read and understand it.
Also in Luang Prabang, we often have festivals, you know, local festivals about religion and we’ll have vendors along this road…maybe we can have big advertising about keeping our environment clean during that time. If you carry plastic bags for soft drinks or drinking water, please place this in plastic bags. We can separate between plastic and paper or other things like that.
LPT: In general, how do you think local people feel about tourism?
Paan: I think Lao people think it’s better to have tourism because it helps the economy. But at the same time, people worry that tourism will destroy our culture and environment. Yeah, that’s what I think.