UNESCO World Heritage Sites: shared shrines or contested sanctuaries? The case of the Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang, Laos

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5 Scopus citations

Abstract

This article, based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Luang Prabang, Laos, since 2006, expands the analysis of the conflicts and divergent interpretations regarding non-Western UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We suggest that the Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995, may best be understood as ‘shared shrines’ or ‘contested sanctuaries.’ Here, three cosmological perceptions intersect: the local Laotian Buddhist cosmology, the statist cosmology of the contemporary Laotian regime, and the Western cosmological perception of heritage, comprising modernity and (colonial) nostalgia. We show how the relevant parties – local town dwellers, Laotian state officials, and Western foreign experts and tourists – are involved in a cosmological debate over the ways in which rituals operate, time evolves, and material objects are created, maintained, destroyed and rebuilt. We conclude by arguing that these differing perceptions of the universe make world heritage sites such as the Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang into ambiguous and contested spaces, where a temporary, apparently harmonious balance exists between conflicting cosmologies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Heritage Tourism
Volume16
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2021

Keywords

  • Buddhist temples
  • Luang Prabang
  • UNESCO
  • World heritage
  • cosmology
  • heritage

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management

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