There is something terribly right going on in Laos. Engulfed in a Green revolution, sustainable tourism is racing through the recently paved roads from the provincial cities to the remote edges of this pristine country. From organic farm cooperatives to ethnic fashion shows, the idea is pulsing and putting money back where it belongs – with the people.
At the heart of the revolution is Stay Another Day, a Luang Prabang based initiative that produces a veritable Lonely Planet of the country’s sustainable organizations. They ask travelers to buy local/fairtrade products, get off the beaten-path, volunteer or make a donation (however small), learn a few basic words in Lao, respect the local culture, keep smiling, and stay another day. Not too much to ask.
Laos is a poor country, but don’t mistake poor for unsafe. The two words are not so easily intertwined. Cloaked in a Buddhist ideology, this predominantly rural republic could hardly exude more chill. The typical streets are awash with smiling faces and welcoming “Sabaidee.” Long hours of back-breaking work and the scars of colonialism are lost on the friendliest faces of Southeast Asia.
Sustainable tourism is an incredible boon for Laos as it has little in the way of industry. Yet, how this took root is a miracle. The idea remains foreign in tourist-heavy Thailand whose music, entertainment and culture float over the Mekong, much to the Laos government’s dismay.
In Laos, sustainable tourism takes on many faces. Green Discovery lays its claim as Laos’ pioneer in adventure travel and ecotourism. Opening their doors in 2000, they were indeed one of the first in this recent movement and are committed to ensuring that local people, “not only benefit financially from tourism but also are true business partners by helping to develop programs and activities.” Each trip includes a graph explaining where the money goes, making the entire process refreshingly transparent.
Vang Vieng is Laos’ backpacker-heavy town and arguably the world capital of river tubing. On the outskirts of this party-crazy town, Vang Vieng Organic Farm offers travelers a chance to participate in the operation of the farm. They provide accommodation not only for helpers in the field but volunteer English teachers for the local schools. Profits from The Farm are used to “provide training and employment, support and education to the local villagers through various projects with the mission to preserve ecological diversity and provide people with accessible and sustainable technologies to earn a living.”
Yet, it is back in Luang Prabang where the sustainable initiatives truly come to life to coalesce the countrywide effort. With the improved roads and transportation services, Luang Prabang is no longer an isolated oasis in northwestern Laos. That’s not to say that the roads are peaceful (cavernous potholes, wild turns, open cliffsides), but they’re there – mostly. The historic center of majestic Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The great city, growing with sophistication, stretches from river to river across the Royal Palace (abandoned with the revolution) and a sprinkling of 16th century temples. Dignified monks, cloaked in tangerine, far outnumber tourists fighting for space under shared yellow umbrellas, while the bald-topped next generation, training at the city’s dazzling temples, spill out onto the streets at daybreak to gather their alms from the kneeling public.
Luang Prabang is a nerdy tourist’s intellectual paradise. Oozing old-world charm, the dreamy backstreets and riverfront pathways overflow with art, architecture, religion, and history. Across the dirt-green river and beyond the latticed riverside gardens, Luang Prabang is surrounded by a handful of craftsmen’s villages. Woodworkers, potters, papermakers, knitters, and dyers prepare their works for the evening market, making Luang Prabang the premier place in Southeast Asia for authentic, genuinely handmade textiles and goods.
This is the auspicious outcome of a rigorous UNESCO campaign to promote the production of traditional arts and crafts as a means of creating incomes and fostering citywide tourism. This year marks the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabong’s status as a World Heritage City, a joyous title that is not lost on the people.
Uber-trendy Hive Bar, hipster-happy L’etranger Books and Tea, and fair-trade haven Kopnoi form a fortress of ideas at the triangular intersection of Phousi and Phommathay roads. Founded by Québecois Isabel Dréan and her partner Simon Côté, the pair arrived in Laos in 2001 and opened L’Etranger, Books and Tea, the town’s first licensed bookshop. They aimed to promote Lao goods on the world market and over time opened up Kopnoi as well as the popular Hive Bar (home of the Ethnik Fashion Show). Kopnoi Export Promotion Center’s second floor gallery houses the Stay Another Day Multimedia Exhibition, full of history, ethnography and ideas on responsible travel. The fairtrade showroom below offers free daily tea tastings with organic brews from the Vang Vieng farm that can be purchased across the street at L’etranger. It’s one big hippy, happy circle of do-goodery.
If not checking out the free 7:00 o’clock flick at L’etranger, next door at Hive, Luang Prabang (and presumably all of Laos’) only fashion show is the perfect combination of education and entertainment. With twenty ethnicities represented by twenty models in almost one-hundred costumes, this is no small-scale production.
Laos is a thinly stitched quilt of ethnic minorities. In fact, thirty-percent of the country’s population is non-Lao-speaking, non-Buddhist “hill tribes” with little or no connection to traditional Lao culture. Government education ensured a limited knowledge of foreign lands, so much of the culture, including elaborate ethnic attire, remains visible in the twenty-first century.
The fashion show takes place on Hive’s moody, red-lit backyard stage. As the smiley, giggling girls parade around to trance music in their patterned ethnic garb, a projector details information about the tribes and their traditional clothes. When you start to wish your high-school teacher taught history lessons like this, the aftershow of local breakdancing boys brings a jolting change from the historic to the global.
Yet, even with its increasingly global allure, Luang Prabang remains blanketed in ancient rituals. Each dusk’s almsgiving brings the methodically devout out to the street and onto their knees. Tourists are given pamphlets to encourage respectful viewing, but a few paparazzi continue stalking the sleepy monks.
After decades of isolation, Laos has opened up its arms, however slightly, to the international arena. It is a crossroads state between Thailand and Vietnam and a close partner with neighboring China (although this is a double-edged sword). There are green initiatives all across the nation from the northern mountains of Luang Namtha to 4,000 islands in the south. Many organizations have offices in Vientiane and Paske, though Luang Prabang remains the heart and soul.
Much of the money generated by these organizations is funneled out of the cities and onto the dirt roads and buffalo paths that crisscross this developing land. Beyond the city limits, Laos poverty is truly face-smacking. Yet, the country is moving in the right direction, improving the quality of life with education and building schools to teach the next generation.
Luang Prabang based Big Brother Mouse is racing to build a library of Lao language books so that every kid can have a chance to read in those schools, while international aid organizations like UNESCO have found profitable ways to preserve traditional crafts. Non-governmental organizations such as Stay Another day (and its affiliates) promote responsible tourism so that visitors find an authentic experience and ensure their money goes where it belongs. Green Discovery monitors that the lands they trek remain unlogged by the Chinese, while environmentalists teach locals alternatives to slash-and-burn farming. With so much positive energy circulating around this small, land-locked country, it’s hard not to fall in love with Lao.
If you would like to get involved or find out how you can give back, here are some helpful websites of organizations mentioned in this article. Alternatively, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.