Posts Tagged 'tourism'

Hand Tractors and Impending Tourism: Day Two in Ban Natane

My first morning in Ban Natane, I woke up with the sun and the roosters. It isn’t saying much—it could have happened somewhere in the States—but it was still a first for me.

The morning was misty and, as I sat up and peered through my mosquito net, I could see out the open-air common room into the dirt paths of the village, the common room of the next house over, where the TV already blared and the family sat on the floor around a metal table of steaming bowls. The day had begun.

I’d had to sleep with ear plugs. I’d become accustomed in SE Asia to geckos bellowing and incests buzzing, but I wasn’t used to the noise of the village: animals snorting, grunting, squawking, chirping, thunder booming and rain drumming. The houses are all open in the village—no windows or glass to enclose things—so you could also hear the neighbors talking. There were less filters, less divisions, more of a meshing of life, I thought as I crawled off my cot. I poured a cloudy glass of water that had been boiled and purified with local herbs, and swallowed my malaria pills.

I’d had plans to ride a hand tractor, then hike an hour out to a river, possibly visit some caves. “Too much rain,” Pauline’s supervisor—whose name I could never get straight—told me over our breakfast of sticky rice and more frog. It was determined, as we dipped clumps of rice into red chili paste, that I would instead ride a hand tractor around to the check out the neighboring villages.

This is romantic in theory. And it is pretty cool—the hand-crank wrench, the rumble, the foot pedals and gear shift, all the machinery exposed, retching and rumbling through brown puddles, water whooshing into waves beside you. Standing on a vehicle like that without falling over is another matter. I tried squatting, clutching the wooden railing, but the lurching started to make me nauseous. For some reason, I determined that sitting was my best option. (Three days later, I’m still paying for this decision with a bruised tailbone…)

Two guys from the Ban Natane took me around to three other villages. Which gave me more of a feel for life out there. It looks like this:

I suppose what struck me most was how much life there was, how much constant movement. It wasn’t exciting like a city, but there was this constant bustle, animals and people, babies of different species. It was intoxicating—I felt like I could sit for hours and just watch it pass.

Again, there seemed to be less divisions: the pig that snorted around today, for instance, could just as easily be dinner tomorrow. Even the land see more involved, more implicated, more imminently a part of life. We talk a lot about sustainable living in the West, but this was the real deal. It wasn’t ideal—there was plenty of trash strewn about, mostly wrappers for the products transported through the cave, and other trash, people still burned. But it was the closest I’d ever seen.

I met Pauline and her supervisor in one of the villages for lunch—another family’s house, another bare wooden room with modest Lao girly posters on the wall, an exposed shoulder, perhaps. On a cot on the floor lay an impossibly thin woman, skin loose on a coat hanger of an arm she raised to readjust her blanket. “She is sick,” Pauline told me, “with cancer.”

I tried not to watch as her family members brought a glass of the murky, purified water to her lips, as they rolled her over, readjusted her pillows. I stared at my frog lunch. These villages were traditional, isolated—and this was part of that too. It wasn’t just the agrarian ideal, the simple life; people here were also poor, didn’t have access to the arguably good aspects of modern life, like health care. It was all fascinating, intoxicating for me, glimpsing in for a few days—but this was these people’s lives. And this, too, was what it looked like.

Later that afternoon, I walked down to the stream by Ban Natane with Pauline. It was where locals bathe, wash clothes, where boys clutch bows and arrows shoot them into the water, actually managing to catch some fish. Pauline laid down on the shallow rocks—clothed, as they do in Laos—and let the water run over her.

“All the people I interview,” she told me, “they all want the tourism. They think it will be a good thing.” She looked over at the boys fishing. “But I’m not so sure. I think they will lose their way of life.” It had already happened, already begun, with the introduction of TV a few months earlier.

I thought of the sallow skin and boney elbow of the woman at lunch. “But who are we to say how their lives should be? If they support the tourism project—” I shrugged, made that French popping noise I’ve picked up— “maybe it will bring positive changes too.”

We talked for a long time about it—about the preservation and loss of culture, about isolation and poverty, about the role of outsiders and tourism, whether it ever does any good or not. I thought of a story I’d heard once, about some now-famous Greek statue that was discovered by Englishmen or Frenchmen, the locals unaware of how valuable and precious it was. They were going to smash it, until the explorers stopped them. I couldn’t remember the name of the statue, or where I heard the story or if it was even true or not. But I thought of broken-off noses and missing limbs in European museums, and wondered if the sanctity of some things might be seen better by outsiders, who have more of world to compare it to.

But again, I thought of the woman on the cot, barely moving. I thought of the earthy taste of the purified water, imagined that taste in her mouth as well as mine.

“There is not an easy answer, I think,” Pauline said, as the water ran over her clothed limbs.

I nodded.

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Scrap Metal and Tourist Scars in Phonsavan

On a small stand in the Phonsavan tourism office, bracelets are for sale.

So is flatware. They sit beside a postcard that reads “Make Spoons Not War.” Beside cartoon posters depicting the Dos and Don’ts of respectable Lao tourism, posted leaflets encourage you to purchase items made by villages out of metal scraped from the UXOs (unexploded ordinances) that continue to claim lives and limbs. From tragedy to hope, a brighter future for impoverished locals—your tourist dollars can make a difference.

Or something like that.

Phonsavan is an emerging tourist destination in Northern Laos. Its only draw is the scars of enigmatic history: a landscape scattered of mysterious, 2000-year-old stone jars (think Stonehenge in circular formation), and bomb craters and UXOs. The juxtaposition has, in the last few years, landed the grizzlied town on the independent traveler route, with broader tourism looming ahead like the black storm clouds of an early rainy season.

For now, the town remains rough-and-tumble and charm-challenged. A series of squalid guesthouses line its one sidewalked road. A handful of tour offices litter the same road. It’s the kind of place where you arrive, in a mid-afternoon downpour that muddies your shoes and seeps through your backpack, and think—Get In, Get Out, Get Gone.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town. I cruised the local market, bought some rice-paper rolls and steamed greens; the hunched old woman smiled at me and refused money for the greens.

I passed Craters Restaurant; decidedly Western, it had a makeshift fence of UXO shells. It felt cheeky, performative, self-conscious—something about it didn’t sit right. But I hadn’t had my requisite three fruit shakes that day, so I sat down and watched the traffic pass.

Across the street, the sign for MAG peeked through the bomb-shell fence. The most prominent UXO-clearing agency in Laos, MAG works both to defuse and remove UXOs, and educate local communities about their dangers. They screen a few documentaries on a small TV set every evening; I left Craters and went to watch that night’s showing of Bomb Harvest.

The documentary traces the work of MAG. It’s somewhat sensationalist and self-congratulatory (“In bomb disposal, you only make one mistake”), but overall the film achieves a really good end: educating people on the realities of UXOs in Laos today.

I’d known they existed; I had more than a passing familiarity with the devastation of US secret bombing in the country. And I knew that UXOs continued to kill and maim people throughout Laos. What I didn’t know was that scrap metal had become the new cash crop. And tourism, I’d discover the next day, was fueling it.

The basic story is this: in a country as poor as Laos, a lot of subsistence farmers struggle to feed themselves. The scrap metal peeled from UXOs fetches a fair dollar—some $100 for large casings. It may not sound like a lot to risk your life for, but when you don’t have enough to eat, your life is risked already. Despite public education campaigns, people continue to harvest and sell UXOs—many of them children.

In addition to selling scrap metal, locals began to use casings for planter boxes and building supports. As tourism trickled in to the Plain of Jars sites, Westerners were charmed with the aesthetic and ingenuity of this repurposing. Tourist-geared establishments are now getting on the bandwagon.

With this backdrop, I eyed the scrap metal bracelets carefully. I liked the idea of them, liked the feel of the dented metal and the notion that I could both accessorize and ease my American guilt. “It helps the local people make money,” our tour guide explained.

“Do they make the bracelets from harvested UXOs?” I asked.

He nodded.

“But isn’t that very dangerous? Don’t people die that way?”

He nodded again, this time more reluctantly.

I slid the bracelet off and placed it back down.

Our tour continued on bumpy muddy roads. We trailed one other 6-person group, but largely had the sites to ourselves. To get to one of the sites, we tromped through rain-soaked rice fields, down wooden slats and past families bathing in brown water.

Tourists, our guide told us, had only been coming to the sites in the last few years. There were plans to pave the roads, our guide told us; an international airport would soon open near the town. Only 15 sites of jar sites were currently open; several more were being de-mined. You got the feeling that mass tourism was just around the corner.

We stopped at a modest farm house. Standing behind the bamboo fence, our guide pointed our the bomb casings used as supports for the barn. We snapped photos. “Not many houses still like this,” our guide said. “Now, the casings are mostly sold to guesthouses and hotels, for decoration.”

I thought of Craters Restaurant and cringed.

Tourism can bring a lot of good to a community. Phonsavan is poised to become more wealthy because of it. But I thought of the children I’d seen in Bomb Harvest, carefully digging through the earth, crude metal detectors and frightened eyes, and wondered at what cost.

It’s hard to always be informed about where your tourist dollars go. Over lunch, I had a long discussion with a British couple about their experience volunteering at a “real” elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They told me about the farcical nature of most eco-parks, how the Thai government worked to block the release of information about the real conditions of the animals, information that would surely hinder the precious money brought in by Westerns who unwittingly wanted to ride elephants.

“And the sad thing,” I remarked, “is that all those people think they’re helping, that their money is going towards some kind of solution.”

They nodded. I leaned slightly and slurped another mouthful of rice noodles.

My spoon, I realized, thumbing its texture, was made of scrap metal.

***

Travel Tips: Phonsavan

Phonsavan is well-connected to provincial capitals and tourist destinations. I took a minivan from Luang Prabang, a bumpy and cramped 7-hour affairs; a bus would have been 9 hours. I took the overnight VIP bus back to Vientiane, getting about 2 hours total of sleep.

Guesthouses are in a sad state in Phonsavan, especially in the budget range. I ended up at the LP-recommended Kong Keo Guesthouse. It wasn’t great by any means and I’d read some sketchy things about the owner, but after checking out three other guesthouses, it was still the least squalid.

A tour of the Plain of Jars sites seems to be the best option, especially if you can buddy up with some people. The sites are pretty far apart, so you’ll need some transport anyway. We paid 150,000 kip (little under $20) each for a group of six, which included lunch. The guide was knowledgeable, and there’s plenty of outfitters to chose from.

Fellow travelers tend to be pretty friendly and less Spring-Break-ish than the backpackers I’d encountered in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, so teaming up should be easy. Definitely visit in the dry season, until the roads are paved and facilities modernized; it was super muddy, and Site 3 becomes impassable during the rainy season.

The only Wifi I found in the town was at the Western and fairly decent Vanaloun Cafe, along the main drag. Wifi is free, espresso drinks passable, and the breakfast was actually pretty good and not too expensive. They also have a small guesthouse. Might be worth checking out, though a girl I met in the cafe told me she couldn’t ever find the shower.

A Vision at Sunrise, Angkor Wat

I had a vision.

Standing on the ancient stone of Angkor Wat, watching the red fist of a sun rise, reach up through the horizon’s haze to ignite the sky, to silhouette that crumble of bygone glory, to light the ponds in the earth red too, to make them become a mirror between the lily pads—there, I had a vision:

What would happen if everyone put their cameras down?

Few things get me out of bed before 7am, and watching the sun rise at Angkor Wat is one of them. Yes, it’s touristy. But it’s one of the wonders of the world (depending on what list you consult; on the List of Me, it’s there), and getting there before the tour bus hordes, when the day was still cool, early, innocent and young—that sounded worth it.

I didn’t expect it to be so goddamn beautiful. I didn’t expect the sun to blaze like that, be red and burning like that, to glare against the expanse of ruin and palms.

I glimpsed it as I came through the gates. I gave it a quick glance and a gasp. As I scurried along the stone wall, rushing past Apsara carvings and other tourists, I reached in my bag. I pointed the camera, saw the landscape through the viewfinder, clicked. I did this before I even looked at the image myself, gave myself time to soak it in, breathe it in—to simple see it.

We moved down towards a pool of water, “a very good place for photos” our well-meaning guide assured us. Through the politely jostling throngs, we could see that, yes, it was a good photo op. So good, in fact, it was the same image on the postcards that little girls in sweatshirts and messy ponytails clutched, tugged at you—“Lady, you buy, 10 postcards, $1”—a voice too low and raspy to belong to a child.

I watched us all there, taking turns and swapping camera, posing with smiles, embraces: “Look at me, I was here.” It seemed more important to get the photo, the proof, the documentation, than it did to bear witness to the immense and startling beauty of it—to just be there.

What would happen, I wondered, if we all put our cameras down, just for thirty seconds, and stood and watched?

I suspected a silence would fall. I suspected some of us might start crying. I suspected something huge would wash over us, come up from inside us, that kind of humbling you feel in the presence of the world’s greatness, that particular pang in your heart when you see something so beautiful it overwhelms you—a feeling you think is private but that really might be communal, like a great inkwell a monk tattoos from, writing our particular fates with shared blackness.

But that’s just a guess. Really, I wouldn’t be able to know, won’t ever know. We all kept clicking at the blaze of a red sun, in the shadow of Angkor Wat.

Sveti Stefan, Forbidden Island

In a little cove on the Montenegro coast, cleaved between staggers of rock and water clear as glass, I’ve discovered what is simultaneously the most beautiful and depressing place I’ve never been: Sveti Stefan.

A little jumble of terracotta roofs, grey stone buildings that look like they were carved right out the rock, a couple trees poking through, all sitting plump and pretty and perfect in that glittering, glittering water: what could be more picturesque?

So you take pictures. Lots of them. You see the other vacationers—Eastern Europeans and a handful of Italians—doing the same. You’ll go over, have a stroll, feel the old cobbled stones through your soles, soak in the Old World ambiance before you work on that sunburn you’ve been itching for.

Only you can’t. You can’t actually go in Sveti Stefan. On the narrow isthmus leading up to the island—made of sand and reinforced with a stone-wall walkway—there’s a sign telling you you can’t. And a security guard, to remind you. And another one at the end of the isthmus (you can see him down there, pacing dutifully).

This is because the entire town is a resort. The entire town.

I hadn’t actually grasped that part in the guidebook: “an old fishing village that was nationalized in the 1950s and turned into a resort…” The resort was closed, but scheduled to reopen; in the meantime, a township had sprung up onshore, keeping the beaches alive with the gentle buzz of non-corporate tourism. All of which promised to change the moment the resort reopened—so go while you can, I read between the lines.

I envisioned a monstrous, skeletal structure with workcrews hanging from cranes, somewhere off to the side of an idyllic pebble beach—an eyesore, but something you could turn your back to. I did not picture the entire island, the remains of a 15th-century village, privatized and closed off to the public.

It’s like a modern-day version of a Forbidden Island. But instead of pirates burying the booty, it’s luxury travel mongols.

Awkward photo Boris insisted on taking

Sitting in the sand, under one of the umbrellas Boris the hotel worker graciously has let you set up camp beneath (hey, it’s October, officially low-season), you feel a little like a grubby kid with their nose pressed up to the glass of some fancy restaurant. It’s a pathetic feeling of alienation—you mean I can’t even walk in there?—that surprises you.

You watch a small boatload of people disembark. The gentle breeze carries their posh British accents over your way; you watch them climb the steps in a wave of white scarves and sun hats. They’re greeted by some resort offical and whisked off down the isthmus, a bagpipe player gloriously leading the way. You pick some pebbles off your leg and feel more dejected.

There’s a story there, and you know it. You imagine some 60 years ago, a traditional, working-class town filled with fishermen and their families. You imagine the boats going out in the morning, the nets coming back full in the afternoon; you picture the women in aprons calling from the windows at their children, running down narrow lanes. You picture them all forcibly removed from their homes, uprooted and unearthed after 500 years, and not able to return home. Because wealthy people wanted to work on their sunburns.

Such displacement happens in the world, yes, but usually in the name of war, religion, apartheid. But tourism?

You wander over to the shady terrace of a fancy cafe for an overpriced espresso. It’s killing you—the story, the story hiding in there, that you can see but can’t get into—so you ask the guy serving you your coffee. He gives you the Disney version. Afterall, he works for the resort.

The town’s population had been dwindling, and, in the 50s, the government bought out the last remaining families—15 or 16, who were given “nice pieces of land” in exchange. The town was then turned into a resort—“the only town resort in the world,” he says with a puff of pride—and saw the likes of Hollywood celebrities and European royalty. Then, “alas,” during the wars of the 90s, the resort fell into disrepair.

But “thankfully,” a German company interveened and purchased the resort. They made a series of exhaustive, tasteful renovations that manage to “retain the Mediterranean charm.” (“It’s really very excellent.”) The resort will officially reopen and accept guests sometime within a year—the British people I saw were probably on a promotional tour.

“Are there ever any other kind of tours? Like for the public?”

“No, no. It is closed. It’s not so nice—you pay to come to a place and have tourists outside your window all day.”

I nod slowly, thinking of a comment I heard once about why private schools should have tuition: “otherwise all the poor people would come rushing in.”

“But, maybe, I don’t know,” the espresso server continues, “you are here for awhile,” shrugs, “maybe I can work some magic, get you a tour.” He sneaks a sidelong glance.

The writer in me wants to press. The feminist in me wants to puke.

I sit there, instead, and watch the island, the steeple from the old church peeking up above the roofs and the green of its remaining trees. I watch the water nod in white glimmers and think, “Yes, yes, there’s a story there.” If I could just get in, if I could just walk among its buildings, sit on its stones, I might be able to get it, a hint of it—hear what is left, the melancholy echoes that have remained.

For a moment I wonder what is worse: that it be preserved, turned into a storybook land that’s accessible to only the fabulously wealthy, where they can indulge their sun-strewn fantasies of a simple life in a long-gone simple world. Or that it turn into a theme-park, another Venice—a soulless caricature of itself. Because, let’s be honest: in this day and age, there’s no way a place as pretty as this would escape the clutches of tourism.

But then I come to my senses. An entire island privitized. You’ve got to be kidding me.

I lick the last bit of froth from my espresso and watch my pretty, pretty island, sitting forbidden in its lonely paradise. And I think: if I could afford it, would I stay there?

Probably.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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