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Luang Prabang threatened by Chinese railroad

June 22, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

During Thailand Travel Mart+ 2019, held on June 5-7 at the Ocean Marina Yacht Club in Pattaya, the Department of Tourism Marketing, Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, Lao PDR, handed out a free copy of its tourist map featuring the destinations of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Savannakhet, Pakse, Xieng Khouang, and Huayxay, all popular destinations when traveling to Laos. What is not indicated yet is that there is a projected railway line, which extents from Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province to the Lao capital of Vientiane, passing the delightful little town of Luang Prabang, which was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Since that time, some 800 religious and civic buildings, including more than 30 Buddhist temples, and some 200 ponds and wet lands are protected accordingly. Actually, this very unique heritage site is now threatened by the construction of the railroad. Nothing more has to be said than to wait what will be happen in the near future, when the railway will be built and completed in 2021 and more and more tourists will flood the town to rip it off from its seclusion along the Mekong River.

Bordered by Myanmar and Thailand in the west, Cambodia in the south, Viet Nam in the east and China in the north, Laos is a landlocked and mountainous country, which needs to look for overland passages to reach the shores of the sea at the Pacific or Indian Ocean. The easiest way to go is by highways to reach Viet Nam across the Annamite Cordillera or connect to Cambodia or Thailand. But it will be the railway that will connect from China via Luang Prabang and Vientiane to reach Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand soon and even further southward across the Malay Peninsula down to Singapore.

Covering an area of 236,800 square kilometers, Laos is still covered by dense primary monsoon forest and lush vegetation. The Mekong River forms a natural boundary with Thailand and flows for 1,900 kilometers in Laos, rising high on the Tibetan Plateau in the north before emptying in a wide delta region at the South China Sea in Viet Nam. Damming the river has started to provide hydro-electric power and become the battery of Mainland Southeast Asia. The country is divided into 17 provinces, including that of Luang Prabang, which also had its provincial town as a former royal city until 1975, when the country metamorphosed into the communist Lao PDR with a population of some five million people made up of 47 official ethnic groups, including the Lao Lum, Lao Theung and Lao Sung. The official tonal language is Lao, while the Lao alphabet has 33 consonants and 28 vowels. The Lao language is very similar to the Thai language and it is in Thailand’s Northeast (Isan), where a dialect of Lao is spoken.

Important to understand more of the Lao people and culture is to know their history, which will be given here very shortly. Actually, Lao early history is shrouded in mystery and involves the legendary story of Khun Borom and his seven sons. There were early feudal kingdoms such as Muang Swa and Muang Sing, which were brought under the rule of King Fa Ngum in the Lan XangHom Khao Kingdom in 1353 with close rlationships to Jinghong in China’s Xishuangbanna and Chiang Mai in Lan Na Thai.

Married to a Khmer princess, Fa Ngum received the Phra Bang Buddha as protector for his kingdom by the King of Angkor in Cambodia, who also had Wat Phu in Southern Laos under control. King Sam Saen Tai ruled from 1373-1416, enlarged the kingdom and built up its military strength. King Setthathirat was the last great king of Lan Xang Hom Khao and moved his capital to Vientiane(Wiang Chan) in 1560, as Luang Prabang was under attack by the Burmese. The Phra Keo from Chiang Mai became the new palladium.

Under King Sulinya Vong (1637-94) the Lao Kingdom reached its golden age and the first Europeans visited Laos, namely Dutch merchant Gerrit van Wuysthoff and an Italian Jesuit missionary G.M. Leria. After the death of King Sulinya Vong, Lan Xang Hom Khao split into three kingdoms: Luang Prabang linked to China, Vientiane linked to Viet Nam and Champasak linked to Siam(Thailand). However, Siamese dominance gave way to the French annexation of Lao territories in 1893. King Sisavangvong (1904-59) was the last crowned king of Luang Prabang. During the 1960s and 1970s civil war erupted, while the Vietnam War ravaged Laos. The rest is modern history.

Tourists to come to Luang Prabang will explore its sacred architecture and the myriad of Buddhist temples around scenic Phu Si Mountain such as Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, Wat Mahathat, Wat Vixun, and Wat Aham among others, the Royal Palace, the outlying Pak U Caves and also French discoverer Henri Mouhot’s Tomb. The most famous and recommended hotel in town is Villa Santi, which once belonged to the royal family. Living arts are everywhere to be seen. It is interesting to note that more and more monks are now leaving the town to stay quiet somewhere outside. These frightening developments will go on in the near future, when the Chinese railroad comes.

Recommended reading:

De Berval, Rene (1959): Kingdom of Laos. Saigon.

Engelmann, Francis (1997): Luang Prabang. Paris.

Evans, Grant (2003): A Short History of Laos. Melbourne.

Gosling, Betty (1997): Old Luang Prabang. Oxford University Press.

Haywood, Denise (2006): Ancient Luang Prabang. Bangkok.

Stuart-Fox, Martin (1997): A History of Laos. Cambridge University Press.

Written by Reinhard Hohler

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