Luang Prabang is an extraordinarily beautiful city. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it has undoubtedly become the tourist center of Laos. There is a seemingly genuine local and governmental effort to protect the culture and history of this holy place, supported by the “urban heritage conservation” efforts of UNESCO. I have been very impressed with the vibrant and healthy local handicraft scene. Genuine fair trade businesses seem to do well here. Because of UNESCO efforts and government ordinances, the architecture on the peninsula remains within certain traditional bounds, and there is funding for many restoration projects.
However, the influence of visiting tourists, like me, affects the cultural and physical landscape. Luang Prabang is faced with the questions growing common for most cities and countries that experience a tourism boom: how to accommodate the foreign presence while protecting local heritage? How to encourage socioeconomic development while also practicing conservation? And, the question that I found myself asking, over and over: how do you feed large amounts of foreigners?
Outsiders spending their money in a local economy have local ramifications, and I would argue that the local food economy is the most affected. As opposed to the onetime silk textile or wood carving souvenir, tourists are using their culinary purchasing power to buy meals three times a day. And while a tourist may want to bring home a locally made craft, they may be less likely to try local noodle soup or grilled meat on the street. Walking down the main street of Luang Prabang, you can spot pizzerias, fried rice shops, and donut stands. Under the Lao section of a menu, you may see “Lao pad thai.” Many restaurants may serve traditional Lao dishes, but “tourist style”, with no fermented fish sauce or less chili. Most dishes are becoming sweeter, catering to tourist taste buds. With the growing number of tourist restaurants, it is actually quite possible to travel in Luang Prabang without eating Lao food.
The night market, located in the center of the town every evening, is representative of this relatively new tourist economy. Vendors have laid their goods on every available surface of the main street, angling bright lamps for their display. Tourists swarm the scene, examining piles of scarves, pants with elephant prints, and t-shirts printed with the Beer Lao logo. Many goods are imported from China and Vietnam, perhaps embellished, and then resold here. The neighboring alleys are lined with fruit shake vendors and crepe stands aimed at foreigners. There are also local bbq stands, local sweets, and Lao dish buffets; the vendors advertise prices as tourists walk by. At the night market, sometimes the foreigners seem to outnumber the locals.
If the night market represents the tourist economy, the morning market, located on downtown side streets, represents everything about the local economy. The main market in Luang Prabang is located just outside the central peninsula. Vendors at the morning market frequently buy from local farmers at the larger market early in the morning and then resell in town.
Gone are the tourist wares. The streets are lined with piles of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Fishermen clean your fish as you wait; butchers slice hunks of meat and package them up. Everything is kept as fresh as possible- the chickens are still alive, as are the crabs and the fish in their bowls. Street vendors are selling rice, grilled local sausages, noodle soups, and takeaway Lao breakfasts and lunches. Clothing vendors sell fewer elephant print pants and instead stock Lao skirts (sinh) and children’s clothes. People are shopping for their daily groceries, chatting with each other, moving slowly and carrying loads.
How can these scenes exist side by side, in the same city? Where does one find the “authentic local food”, as I am frequently asked? Is it authentic when a Lao child eats an imported Thai snack? How about the Lao family that owns a pizzeria? Is the foreigner (read: me) cluelessly ordering mystery meats in English at the local bbq place eating authentically? What about the foreigner who excitedly orders food listed under the “Lao” section of the menu, unaware that it is really Bangkok food in disguise?
Cuisine, like any other part of culture, is a living, breathing thing. It reacts to economic pressures and changing tastes. The food scene here is diverse and complicated; one can find a bit of everything. There are beautiful traditions to be acknowledged, but cuisine adapts to new conditions, as every aspect of culture does. How does one decide when that adaptation becomes “inauthentic”?
Tourism in a developing country poses complex, amorphous, and sometimes unanswerable questions. While I was here, I tried to eat and spend my money in respectful and responsible ways, learning what I could about this place and its people. But I leave here after a short two week stay, and the people here will continue to be faced with these inescapable questions. I hope my favorite noodle stand continues to thrive, surrounded by restaurants. I hope that my favorite restaurant on the Mekong continues to add fermented fish sauce to everything, surprising the foreigners. I hope that the small family businesses are not pushed out by overstaffed, over the top luxury restaurants that cater to tour groups that arrive in buses. But most importantly, I hope that the people here continue to build their own style of development, protecting what they value and pushing to create all that they deserve. They are they only ones that can decide what the future of this city will look like. I just hope that future includes the fermented fish sauce.