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Multiple nostalgias: the fabric of heritage in Luang Prabang (Lao PDR)


  • I have benefited tremendously from the generous comments of Anne Allison, Juliet Bedford, Chiara Bortolotto Catherine Choron-Baix, Olivier Evrard, Nathalie Heinich, Holly High, Martin Holbraad, Johanna Markkula, Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic, Pierre Petit, Charles Piot, Mike Rowlands, and Michael Stewart. Also I would like to thank Matthew Engelke and anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful remarks on an earlier version of this text.

Laboratoire d'Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains, Université Libre de Bruxelles, CP 124, 44 avenue Jeanne, 1050 Brussels.


This article explores the workings of nostalgia as a major driving force in heritage-making. Based on my fieldwork in Luang Prabang, an ancient royal town of northern Laos which became a UNESCO Listed World Heritage Site in 1995, I propose that it is necessary to disentangle the multiple nostalgic attachments which lie behind the often-mentioned label ‘nostalgia’ from those which are not necessarily nostalgic. I explore the various engagements of diverse actors with nostalgia, and how these engagements, rooted in personal experiences, intersect with specific postures towards time, history, heritage, development, and culture. Secondly, my aim is to highlight the performative aspects of nostalgia in the fabric of heritage. I argue that, by attempting to preserve spaces, practices, and objects, UNESCO experts and national civil servants effectively transform them. Far from stopping transmission and culture mechanisms, patrimonial recognition creates aesthetic forms, historical narratives, politics of transmission, and, more generally, social configurations. I delve into the processes through which Luang Prabang has been turned into a heritage scene and a tourist attraction, and I contend that such transformation is rendered possible by the concatenation of UNESCO projects, cosmopolitan gentrification, tourism development, and state programmes.