Chiang Khan at the crossroads
BANGKOK, 7 August 2012: It is better late than never. “But would it be better to prevent the problem rather than cleaning up the mess?”
Despite abundant examples of tourism gone wrong in towns that opened their doors to mass tourism, we still repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We let change spin out of control and despite our best intentions we head in the same undesirable direction that others have trod. Before we know it, we have fallen into the trap. We are dancing around finding ways to fix problems rather than enjoying a sustainable version of tourism.
Chiang Khan, a once-sleepy old town on the bank of Mekong River in Loei province, is one of the towns that needs to be rescued from falling down the tourism dark hole. It is almost tottering on the brink.
To be exact, the town is a two-street affair spanning two kilometres along the river bank and lined with old wooden shop-houses. It is not the entire district, but the part that lines the river bank that is attracting tourists. Gradually what was a quaint village noted for its traditional two-storey wooden shop houses, is degenerating into a tacky commercial trap.
It is true that change is absolute truth and there is always the dilemma; a conflict between conservation and economic growth.
We all want a better living and to share prosperity if it comes to our village. Locals who own an old shaky house would like to sell it and build a more modern comfortable home. If they decide not to sell, then they want the quaint house to earn revenue possibly as a guesthouses, souvenir shop or restaurant.
It is the question of how to maintain local identity, while developing enough facilities to cash in on the tourism business.
Five years ago, I visited Chiang Khan, although I had heard about it since my childhood due to the lyrics of a northeatern folksong. Obviously, I was lucky to be there before the town turned a corner and became the chic place to spend a holiday.
Back then the riverside street was still sleepy. Commercial activities were few and far between. The attraction was the weathered wooden shop-houses many of them closed as business was not that good. There were a few guesthouses and small hotels; clean yet giving you the eerie impression of age and neglect.
In five years the changes should not be so dramatic, or so I thought. But in the world of internet connectivity, social media and sharing culture, we spread the news fast and it appears Chiang Khan is one of those places you just have to visit.
The tourism boom transformed the quiet riverside street into a maze of guesthouses, coffee shops and souvenir shops sellling postcards and T-shirts. The shop names, decorations or words on T-Shirts all play with the words – Loei and Khan. Old wooden houses have been renovated in different fashions, or rebuilt with cheap concrete and many of the buildings are no longer owned by locals.
Undeniably there are outsiders who visit Chiang Khan and fall in love with the place. Then they think about making a living out of their romance. Tourism brings big income via the guesthouses, shops, restaurants and handicraft shops.
Chiang Khan is still promoted as an old community with a 100-year milestone while the riverside street is dubbed a ‘cultural street’.
Where is oldness and where is culture? Where is genuineness? It is just the same as Pai in Mae Hong Son, Samchuk in Suphan Buri, or Amphawa in Samut Songkram.
Visitors get to sip coffee, take photos with various nice backdrops and buy t-shirts saying ‘I’ve been to Chiang Khan’ but know nothing about Chiang Khan as a community. It is just a photo backdrop really with a few well placed props; a door arch, a window frame or a roadside post box.
It is impossible to turn back the clock. At least the municipal laws on building codes announced in the Royal Gazette, October 2010, should prevent future change, but none of the regulations are retroactive.
Chiang Khan’s way of life has changed, but it could still be saved by a few cultural additions. The town’s stakeholders could build a small museum telling stories about Chiang Khan from the past possibly illustrated by photographs and exhibits.
While many of the wooden houses have been sold or renovated, there is a shop-house very worn-out and quite suitable for a museum. If it has not been sold to an outsider, the village should renovate it and turn it into a museum. The house itself is a living museum, with its broken, run-down appearance adding to its charm. The construction technique, wattle and daub for the walls is a story in itself.
The alms giving ritual is also worth saving. The Tourism Authority of Thailand provides a certificate to those who follow the alms giving tradition faithfully.
Traditionally, locals, like people in Luang Prabang, offer just sticky rice to the monks and later take food to the temples. But when tourism arrives the tradition changes to facilitate tourists. They are given food packed in plastic bags and offer this to the monks together with sticky rice. Tourists unknowingly put money into the alms bowls and this means the monks cannot eat the rice.
If Loei promotes slow tourism, then it is unnecessary to rush things in a single step. Offer the monks sticky rice, then take food to the temple and gain a blessing. It is such a beautiful ritual but it is fast disappearing.
Another recent attempt to reverse change, sees the TAT and 11 organisations such as the province, a tourism association, pollution control department and a school signing a pact to support sustainable tourism.
In terms of souvenirs, products from Pha Khao Ma, a multi-purpose cloth, are crafted into bags, aprons and shorts. It adds value to the old craft and support continuity and creativity.
The soft sweetened dried coconut meat that is the main souvenir of the area needs to be better packaged to add value and extend shelf life, especially if there are more international tourists who would like to take it home.
Hopefully Thailand will learn from all the cases and act to establish sustainable and responsible tourism. Maybe, the problem of directionless development in Thailand has nothing to do with a lack of vision.
We have plenty of that, but we need to differentiate what is in the public interest rather than what is defined as personal interest. What is in the public interest should always come first over personal interest, but we have to make the lines clear between the two so there is no doubt which road we need to follow.