Saturday, August 30, 2008

colonialism at its . . .finest?

Luang Prabang is the old French administrative capital in Laos, and I'd heard from scores of people that it is an amazing place to relax for a while -- good food, good strolling, good everything. And I love Marguerite Duras' "The Lover," a story set in 19th century French Indochina that was strikingly beautiful. So I was looking forward to spending some time here. I'll admit, it's stunning -- they did a great job of preserving the old French colonial architecture, and the crumbling buildings set amidst all the overgrown foliage are quite striking and atmospheric. The evenings here are warm and humid and seductive. LPB still has the smoke and street food and motorbikes that all Laotian towns have, and it adds to the sort of romance and adventure of it all. But it's all very . . .French. And it's been stirring my shit up ever since I got here.

This is the first real colonial town I've ever been to. I've been to the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony for 300 years, but it doesn't feel like Spain.  Same with India. It feels like India everywhere you go, and that is the main allure of it. I guess the thing that threw me off about LPB is that everyone enjoys it because of its colonial influence. Laos is all one-road towns and dirt roads and tiny villages, yet here is LPB, a total anomaly in the country. LPB isn't Laos, it's a gorgeous, tropical 19th century French town; a French friend even told me that LPB has better baguettes than Paris. Couples walk arm-in-arm reveling in the beauty of it all, but I just feel like an asshole. It feels too wistful for something that was, in every other respect, horrible. It's pretty hard to reconcile the romantic in me that loves LPB's aesthetic, with the guilt-ridden historian in me that doubts that any joy can be found in colonialism, even symbols of previous colonialism. I don't understand how I'm supposed to forget that the French barged in with total disregard for the Laotians, never integrated into the culture, and created LPB, an unnatural town that was ground zero for their claims to superiority, let alone think that it's all so romantic. Beauty is only skin-deep here.

note: this isn't a post to rag on the French, or imply anything about French people. colonialism wasn't limited to the French, and anyway every world power does horrible things. I mean, come on, I'm from the U.S.!

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