Luang Prabang preserves natural beauty, greenery, cleanliness

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Photograph: Benedict Lopez

On a trip to northern Laos, Benedict Lopez discovers that it is possible for a city to draw tourists without spending big on tacky ‘tourist attractions’ that destroy the natural setting.

As the plane descends into Luang Prabang, the lush flora is the most conspicuous sight encompassing the vicinity of the city, with only the meandering Mekong River breaking the green vista.

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Definitely an enchanting spectacle for any environmentalist, especially with environmental degradation taking place in many other parts of the world.

Situated in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang was the royal capital of Laos until 1975. Well known for its many Buddhist temples, including the gold-plated Wat Xieng Thong, dating back to the 16th century and Wat Mai, Luang Prabang was once the abode for the head of Laotian Buddhism.

For any young Malaysian visiting this city, it may look like a place where time came to a standstill more than half a century ago. But for those of my generation – my friends and I are here for a holiday – the setting is nostalgic as it is reminiscent of Malaya and Malaysia in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Natural tourist spots in any country are not artificial, but nature’s creation, and Luang Prabang is well endowed with these gifts. Designated a World Heritage site in 1995, Luang Prabang offers tourists numerous opportunities for sailing, climbing, marvelling at scenic caves and waterfalls, and exploring the city on a bicycle or tuk-tuk.

Of the 58 adjoining villages in Luang Prabang, 33 embrace the Unesco World Heritage site. The city is renowned for its unique and extraordinarily well-maintained architectural, religious and cultural heritage – an amalgamation of rural and urban development spanning more than a few centuries, incorporating French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th Century.

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In a village we visit, we are impressed to read a notice board which reads: “Three aspects to be considered good: Village women’s union, healthy village, crime free.” Our villages in Malaysia can emulate these virtues.

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Located on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si Falls is a three-tier turquoise waterfall – a popular tourist attraction that enables visitors to feast on the natural beauty of Laos’ countryside. Gushing blue waters cascade 60 metres down rocky cliffs into pools – ideal for cooling off on hot days. Tourists flood the place, many of them taking a dip in the pools.

Photograph: Benedict Lopez

The park’s well-kept paths are ideal for strolling with old-fashioned wooden bridges over the water against the backdrop of the breathtaking picturesque waterfalls. The enclave is also home to a bear rescue centre and a butterfly park, all located within the vicinity of the waterfalls.

Luang Prabang captivates many tourists with its friendly, simple and respectful residents, who have to eke out a living on a daily basis. Cleanliness is a virtue among the locals – something visitors can learn from. Roads, stalls, restaurants and toilets are extremely clean, and food is relatively cheap.

I enquire from our tuk-tuk driver about the cleanliness of the city.

It is the duty of residents and owners of businesses premises to ensure their premises are clean and hygienic, he responds.

We in Malaysia can learn from these simple folk about the virtues of cleanliness in our daily lives.

The only drawbacks of Luang Prabang: not many people can converse in English and credit cards are not widely used. Besides the Laotian currency Kip, the US dollar and the Thai bhat are accepted at most retail outlets. So here, cash is king!

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We hop on a boat for an hour’s ride down the Mekong River. The spectacular, exquisite and all-pervading greenery of the hills and the tranquillity and cleanliness of the river keep me spellbound. Not many developed and developing countries, including Malaysia, can take pride in having unpolluted rivers in their countries.

A serene boat ride along the Mekong – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Luang Prabang’s tourists’ spots are well maintained. The absence of any high-rise buildings enhances the charm and beauty of the city – similar to the streetscape in Stockholm and other Nordic cities. The infrastructure in Luang Prabang and its suburbs needs to be upgraded, and travelling by road can at times be a challenge for tourists.

Affordable guest houses and hotels are a draw for any tourist contemplating a visit to Luang Prabang. Indeed, Wifi connectivity at the hotel where we are putting up and in other places around here is good. And despite being in a poor country, the streets of the city and its outskirts are free of any vagrants.

Luang Prabang offers invaluable lessons to other cities around the world, including those in Malaysia, on how to appeal to tourists without extravagant public spending at the expense of taxpayers. All a city has to do is to capitalise on its strengths and maximise publicity to attract visitors from around the globe.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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