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Published: April 8th 2018
The world is full of strange and wondrous things. Mud flaps don’t usually make the list, but the ones on the tuk tuks in Luang Prabang, Laos are adorned with the unmistakable image of Rambo. This may not be wondrous, but it is definitely strange. Rambo is a classic American hero archetype -- a self-reliant, super-individualistic, gratuitously violent, gunslinger outlaw. In the movie (First Blood part 2), Rambo is sent back to Vietnam on a top secret recon mission. In an orgy of carnage, Rambo wipes away the humiliation of defeat in Vietnam, vanquishes hordes of VC and some villainous Russian commies, and reasserts America’s Cold War awesomeness. It is morning in Reagan’s America, and Rambo is the great anti-communist avenging angel. America loves it. It’s less clear what the Laotians find desirable.
Lao’s People’s Democratic Republic has been a communist state since 1975. Even if the average tuk tuk driver is not a communist ideologue, Laos was sufficiently devastated by the Vietnam War to foster some serious anti-American resentment. Despite Laos being officially neutral, the US dropped about 2.5 million tons of cluster bombs on the country in the decade long secret war (1964-73). That’s more than all the
bombs dropped on Europe in WWII and roughly seven bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country. Many didn’t detonate, so they are still sprinkled across the countryside, killing farmers and children who stumble upon them. Legacies of War reports “fewer than 1 million of the estimated 80 million cluster munitions that failed to detonate have been cleared.”
You’d think this would hurt Rambo's popularity.
But we hadn’t come to Luang Prabang to unravel the Rambo mud flap mystery. We’d come because ‘we’ included three over 70s and one under three, and UNESCO had anointed the city a world heritage site. Though the Communists have kept the Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-11s at bay, world heritage status reliably spawns boutique hotels, fusion restaurants, Trip Advisor recommendations, and a safely circumscribed area where tourists can ride bikes, buy trinkets and textiles, and take pictures. The old city, the part that tourists visit and UNESCO nannies, sits on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, where local legend says two holy men came across an auspicious flame-colored tree and founded ‘the crown jewel of the Mekong’.
It was here, in the 14th
the first kingdom of Laos arose.
Luang Prabang got UNESCO blessing partly because the French colonized Laos in the late 1800s. As a result, much of the old city is a blend of traditional Laotian and French colonial architecture. Also, the city is littered with gilded temples whose tiered roofs sweep the ground, and a 24-meter golden stupa crowning Phou Si, the prominent hill that rises steeply from the center of the peninsula. This combination meets the criteria necessary to be deemed ‘of outstanding universal value.’ Most importantly, the city is still intact since Luang Prabang was spared in the American carpet bombing of the country. And then there are the monks.
Luang Prabang is full of them, and monks in neon-tangerine robes are very very picturesque. Every morning, in the pearly light of the new day, the monks file out of the monasteries to collect alms. Mist rises atmospherically from the two rivers and local women, in long embroidered skirts with silken scarves over their shoulders, kneel on reed mats on the sidewalk awaiting the daily procession. Barefoot, the monks pass wordlessly, making no eye contact and barely breaking stride as the women mutter prayers and drop
handfuls of still steaming sticky rice into the proffered begging bowls. This, more than temples and fusion architecture, is the pinnacle of cultural patrimony. The morning alms ritual, the tak bat, is authentic living culture, but it’s also the tourist crack rock that threatens to turn Luang Prabang into a cultural theme park.
Well before the monks begin their rounds and well before the locals carry their pots of sticky rice to the street side, the white vans carrying the tourists appear. The vans race towards optimal viewing spots around town and disgorge hordes of camera wielding tourists. Some tourists circle the monks like flies, snapping pictures furiously. Others instagram the moment at a more respectful distance. Few are content to just observe because in the modern world, if you don’t have a picture of it, it didn’t happen. The problem, however, is not that tourists take pictures, it’s that many of them are paparazzi jackasses.
Before daybreak, I walk to the city center with my parents, and we find a bench in front of the Royal Palace. Gradually, the locals arrive, unrolling their mats on the sidewalk and chatting quietly amongst themselves - much like
you’d expect from the 5am McDonalds coffee crowd in anywhere USA. When the deep thump of the temple drums in Wat Ho Pha Bang welcomes dawn, the locals settle onto low stools or mats to await the monks. There are no aspiring National Geographic photographers this morning, but there are two western women participating in the tak bat. Their guide has dressed them in traditional Laotian skits and scarves, put them on a mat next to the old ladies, and given them a bucket of rice. I can’t fathom what the monks and the old ladies think of this. My personal inclination is holier-than-thou ridicule, but that would be rank hypocrisy. I’ve spun my fair share of prayer wheels and hugged Amritanandamayi Devi somewhere in the backwaters of Kerala, India. Instead, I make a concerted effort to not watch them, so I can’t say if they succumbed to the need to selfie.
The commercialization and objectification of the tak bat undoubtedly threatens the ritual in some very real way, but this is the double edge of tourism. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. Tourism means dollars. Lots of them. And
Laos is one of East Asia’s poorest countries. In 2017, travel and tourism contributed almost 2 billion to Laos’ GDP and 7.6 trillion globally.
That’s a lot of money. Tourism may (or may not) cheapen ritual, make historic centers into simulacrum, and turn culture into performance art, but it seems clear that tourism money also reduces poverty and increases education, employment, and opportunity. Tourism is not an incontrovertible evil, but its not a panacea either. Rather, it is a significant variable in the dynamic of modern cultural exchange. However, neither the tourists nor the changes they bring, explains how Rambo became a mud flap icon in Laos. Some things truly are mysterious.
• https://www.statista.com/topics/962/global-tourism/ & https://www.wttc.org/-/media/files/reports/economic-impact-research/.../laos2017.pdf
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