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Tea Leaves

Tourism and development threaten Laos' French traditions

Rapid changes are erasing the last vestiges of a fragile heritage

A motorized rickshaw parks in front of a colonial building in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

It remains a jewel of French colonial architecture, you can savor some of the best croissants and baguettes east of Paris here, and even toddlers still learn the language of their bygone rulers. Luang Prabang, tucked into a river valley in the heart of Laos, survives as one of the last bastions of the old French Indochina.

But pressing in hard are new waves of eager tourists and investors, sparking fears that new-style "colonialists" will despoil its unique and fragile Franco-Lao heritage. Led by Chinese, they are snapping up real estate, building supermarkets and hotels catering to a growing stream of tourists, whose cars clog the narrow streets of a town famed for its tranquil atmosphere and 30-plus Buddhist temples.

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