…..and is being awarded a UNESCO World Heritage Site Award a blessing or a curse?
After two days on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos we arrived at the UNESCO listed city of Luang Prabang which sits, as do most major towns in Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River. At this stage we were totally unaware that the Hmong New Year was just around the corner.
I explored Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside, both by myself and with new friends that I had met on the slow boat (you can read what Luang Prabang has to offer its visitors here), but even after a week in the city and getting to know my way around, there was something unsettling that I was unable to put my finger on.
Luang Prabang got its World Heritage Site Award thanks to the fusion of the varying architectural styles.
Traditional wooden Lao houses blend with modern buildings which in turn blend with the villas built by the Europeans who colonised and claimed Laos in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The architecture makes Luang Prabang special although much of the original work is being hidden as the townspeople embrace tourism and cover up the traditional frontages with brash signs inviting you to try the fresh coconut drinks or the cheap beer.
When I was in town there was an additional attraction. Luang Prabang was celebrating its 20th anniversary of the World Heritage award.
The traditional Laos name for Laos means the land of a million elephants and as a very special attraction a herd of twelve elephants was walked – some for more than six hundred kilometres – into Luang Prabang to take part in the parade.
There was a massive celebration event planned. Thousands of people turned out, all dressed in their traditional costumes and they paraded along the main street in. They walked in groups, representing their communities, their villages or their employers.
They carried flowers, they played instruments or danced and they looked beautiful. But to be honest, not that many of them looked very comfortable in the spotlight.
The sides of the main street were packed and tourists were running over and shoving cameras in faces to get the perfect shot – never mind the fact that the Laos are generally very shy. That they were in the parade seemed to mean that they were fair game to some of the audience.
I did take plenty of photographs but I didn’t push my lens into people’s faces and I always indicated that I was asking permission if somebody was looking straight at me. If they refused to acknowledge me, I lowered my camera. For this reason I travel with a small descreet camera which I can easily slip into my pocket if anybody indicates that they are not happy to have their photo taken. I use the Panasonic Lumix which has a decent zoom – click here if you are interested in the specs and the latest prices.
To be granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site status does undoubtedly bring more visitors and therefore more money to a town, but at what cost?
The locals put on a wonderful procession but in my opinion, many of them were uncomfortable with the attention. On the other side of the coin the tourists often just get a sanitised Disney-fied view of the world and don’t experience the real world. (Just wait until you read about Hoi An in Vietnam).
To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.
It was cold in Nong Khiaw.
Now let’s fast forward in my adventures in Laos via Nong Khiaw which was truly beautiful and pick up the story again after a ten hour minivan ride through tortuous mountains when we arrived in Xam Neua.
Xam Neua is in Laos’ most remote province and when we were there was freezing cold, wet, rainy and muddy and I began to fall sick after eating some very dodgy food.
Gosia and I had planned to head up into the remote north eastern region and visit the caves from where the Lao PDR party had conducted their operations but it was just too damn cold and the guesthouses were just too damn horrible.
The only saving grace was that we met the lovely Christian on the bus and hung around together for a few days. Walking around in the rain and the mud the three of us stumbled across some ladies who were weaving on the porches of their falling down wooden homes and we met others at the bus station who were working on a large tapestry. This is what I mean by getting an authentic view of a place – meeting and interacting with the ordinary workers, families and people going about their usual business
Gosia and I decided that no matter how impressive the caves were we just were too cold to go and visit and I was too sick so we jumped on another minivan and dropped southwards to Phonsovan.
Many tourists stop at Phonsovan and use it as a base for visiting the Plain of Jars which was also on our hit list but I was too sick to consider venturing out on a day trip and Gosia was still too cold.
Our accommodation was nothing more than a wooden cabin (think garden shed) with a tiny bathroom attached and piles of fleecy blankets on the bed, although the family that owned the hostel were lovely. We decided to keep moving south but we had to wait for the next epic minivan journey the following day.
The Hmong New Year
We had a day to kill and we had heard loud music so we decided to go and explore the town. What a find!
Forget your UNESCO processions and your world heritage parades.We had struck gold and we had landed in Phonsovan at the Hmong New Year.
A large piece of land behind the bus station was hosting a country style fair such as you might imagine would have taken place in the UK many years ago or in the rural United States back in the 1930’s.
Tailors and seamstresses were busy in the market making new dresses and outfits. The girls (and many of the men) were dressed up to the nines in traditional Hmong costumes – there were bright colours everywhere.
The Hmong people are, or used to be, identified by their elaborate clothing with the different designs and headwear which symbolised which village or even which family they belong to. They do still wear the clothes but the dress code is not so rigid as it used to be, or in the towns at least.
Now in Phonsovan during the Hmong New Year celebratons many of the girls have the freedom to choose their own costumes and they team up with best friends to coordinate their look, splashing out on new clothes and tottering around the field aand the dirt roads in towering high heeled shoes.
On the fair ground itself, hawkers were running country fair type entertainment; there was nothing high-tech here. There was a rickety looking ferris wheel which appeared to be constructed out of old bits of pipe and there were dodgem cars speeding around a circuit. You could throw darts at balloons to win a large cuddly toy….. or you could find yourself a husband or a wife!
Courtship rituals of the Hmong people.
In the fields behind the fairground people were swarming around. Women were standing chatting and eating fried chicken on sticks, small children were scampering around and men were parading and eyeing up all of the young ladies.
Most intriguing of all, many groups had arranged themselves in two parallel lines facing each other. They were tossing small balls between them as they recited some sort of a chant or poem., many sheltering from the sun under brightly coloured parasols.
I was over the moon. We had stumbled upon a Hmong courtship ritual. I had heard about this before I had come to Laos and here I was witnessing it for myself. This display wasn’t being put on for tourists – this was day to day life during the Hmong New Year.
The done thing is for the participants to look suitably bored as they toss the ball underarm to the person standing opposite but this was one way that they would choose a marriage partner.
Just like many places in the world there were more hopeful women than men, but the men and teenagers who had joined in were looking like the cats that got the cream surrounded by all of the beautiful girls with their perfect complextions, intricate makeup and wonderful clothes.
Unlike imy time in Luang Prabang where I often felt uncomfortable looking at the people, their buildings and the places of interest, here we felt accepted. Yes, we were stared at – we only met two other ‘farangs’ (foreigners) in town while we were there – but it was a different sort of staring.
There was no animosity just intrigue. WE were the exhibition, the interesting sight. We were on their turf during the Hmong New Year and we were constantly invited to take photos of people and their children or to pose with groups of teenagers for ‘selfies’.
I managed to hold my bout of sickness together long enough to enjoy our afternoon in the sun and watching all ages enjoy their Hmong New Year celebrations.
Gosia and I agreed that despite the cold and despite the fact that we hadn’t made it to either the caves or to the Plain of Jars and despite the fact that we had been crammed onto overcrowded minivans for long days of travel (did I mention that the Laos are unable to ride on buses without being travel sick?) we were both so pleased that we had made our long journey around the mountains of northern Laos and we were grateful to be able to join with the Hmong people as they celebrated their New Year.
Do you want to learn more about minority people and their traditional clothing?
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This article was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated and republished with new content