This Blog had its origins pretty much in random thoughts that have been banging around in my skull for years. The thoughts involve the choices Thailand has made in becoming a premier tourist destination – the opportunities both won and lost.
I was able to put these thoughts into a more cogent order after a short visit my wife Mali and I paid last year to the old “Royal Capital” of Laos – Luang Prabang. You might be saying right now “what does this have to do with Thai Tourism’ – well read on.
The understatement of all time would be to say that Luang Prabang is beautiful. I’ve been to many places around the world but Luang Prabang is one of the very few I believe that actually lives up to and even exceeds its hype.
A town of 36 Buddhist Temples, Luang Prabang nestles in a rain-forested valley on the Mekong River. A busy but orderly town and populated with friendly and graceful people the mood of the place enveloped us from the moment we arrived. It was just so different from the commercialized and in your face tourism industry of Lao’s big neighbour.
For an Isaan girl like my wife Mali, Luang Prabang was the equivalent of time travel. Coming from Isaan, with its cultural and spiritual links to Laos, Mali connected with the place right from the outset. From presenting alms at dawn to the Luang Prabang monks to watching naked kids running and waving to us from the banks of the Mekong, I heard Mali say repeatedly over three days – Just like Thailand when I was a child.
One of the things I found remarkable about Luang Prabang was the attitude of other foreign tourists. The old royal capital is now in the grip of a tour invasion (probably much to the distress of those who knew Luang Prabang from years back) but these tourists appeared to be in the main in total awe of the place. Apart from a French Tourist whining about the late arrival of his breakfast omelet, most visitors I came across appeared to tread and speak carefully so as not to destroy the town’s ambience.
In short, Luang Prabang was the centre of attention – not themselves. How long this attitude remains highlights the fragility of Luang Prabang’s future as a tourist destination. A bit like an egg in one of Mike Tyson’s boxing gloves.
Flying back to Bangkok after our visit it made me think about the choices a small nation like Laos will need to make in the future. How to keep a revenue earner like tourism going without destroying the intrinsic value of places like Luang Prabang.
We approached Bangkok at dusk and the contrast between the two “Royal Capitals” was stark. Luang Prabang is a small town, Bangkok a sprawling Mega City. It also prompted me to think about how lucky Thailand has been compared to its much smaller neighbour in terms of physical resources and their uses.
Thailand’s physical attributes are well-documented – Fertile soil, a long coastline with stunningly beautiful beaches, mountains and of course Bangkok which is a destination in itself. In human terms Thailand’s attributes are – a friendly population, Buddhist culture and some of the most vibrant nightlife in the world.
No wonder that Thailand has become a premier tourist destination with attractions that range from the sublime to the banal. Anything from meditation retreats in Northeast Thailand to cold beer and fornication in Kho Samui and Pattaya. Nothing seems to be able to impede the tourist juggernaut in Thailand.
However like a desperate gambler, has Thailand used up all its markers? Like its rainforests, Thailand seems to rapidly gobbling up all its natural resources – fishing villages to wall-to-wall condominiums in a matter of years. Don’t believe me – look what’s happening now to Kho Chang. What will be the state of the Thai tourist industry in say twenty years?
Ironically,I predict pretty much as successful as it is today. Thailand has been so lucky in terms of its physical/human attributes that I believe dumb luck will always see it through. It will always be warmer than Europe, for all its development still more laid back than the USA, and above all still have the beguiling ability to attract people.
From a spiritual perspective I believe that Luang Prabang has an intrinsic value that Thailand has long lost. But from a merchant bankers perspective, my money is on Thailand – “can’t beat that good luck.”
In the end my blog probably seems a bit pointless – trying to find a problem when everybody is saying “what problem”. But in a sense writing it has helped defrag my mind.
Now where’s that bottle opener!!!
For anybody interested in my experience of Luang Prabang please click on the link below. There is laso a link on this page to a photo-gallery on Luang Prabang