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    THE CROSSROADS OF BOLAVEN

    KOK PHUNG TAI. BOLAVEN PLATEAU, LAOS   





Along the dirt tracks of the plateau, lyes an animist Katu village of Kok Phung Tai that borders its coffee plantation. Here one of the local inhabitants welcomes visitors to show the farm and more than that, share the background of his village and its inhabitants. With the tourists showing a keen interest in travelling all-year-round, there is not only plenty of work for the host, but also a great deal of influence coming in from distant societies, brushing against the local culture, day in and day out. Thus far the passing tourists seemingly have little effect on the traditions and rituals of this Katu tribe. Although it mustn’t be said that the influence is non-existent, more so yet to be studied on the basis of a recent, rising form of travel - ethnic tourism.

General tourism in Laos is on the rise, from just 5000 visitors in 1991 to 4,2 million in 2016. Rich nature spreads interest in ecotourism, with many discovering it by motorbikes, thus reaching further and wider. The Bolaven Plateau in the south of Laos is well known for its coffee plantations, and this appeals to tourists, who hope to grasp the origins of their cup of coffee cup. With coffee being the fifth largest export in Laos, and 95% of it growing in the Bolaven Plateau, some local farmers use this as an opportunity for merging their way of life with a possibility for extra income. The region, not only rich in its coffee-growing culture, shares a more vital bearing than agriculture, its ethnic minorities. With the area mostly inhabited by the Katu, Alak, Taoy, Suay and Laven, from which the region's name derives.

The impact of foreign influence on ethnic groups is, thus far, mixed and hard to evaluate. To tourists, the visual aspect of ethnic groups seems the most alluring and naturally, the first to be interpreted. It includes pieces of material culture such as crafts, ethnic costumes, architecture. Outside-interest creates a mean for the ethnic groups to communicate these pieces and present them in accordance with their beliefs. This helps to evolve and preserve their work, their part of identity, in the ever-globalising world, which strongly affects the younger generations who are more vulnerable to disinterest with their traditional roots. Furthermore, the locals' quality of life improves not only through direct income, but also thanks to government investment. New structures for accommodating tourists can provide employment and new roads - ease of access for tourists and locals alike.

If on the contrary, priority is given to profit over strengthening identity, it can endanger cultural integrity. It’s a risk of the identity becoming commercialised, for example having a craft transform from a traditional custom into a product, used and shared by all. Again, the heightened importance of financial stability can make locals move in search of employment, thus distancing themselves from their cultural roots. These shifts in the lives of ethnic groups do not apply as a rule. It’s vital to take into consideration many aspects that influence the weight of ethnic tourism. Every country and ethnic group that it includes is its own set of circumstances ranging from its history and geography to its standard of living and quality of life. With the choice already made, this Katu village shows its hospitality to outsiders, if it’s benefit or harm that leaves a mark, is yet to be seen in the long run.  

© 2018 Jānis Žguts