Eco destination: Laos

TOTALLY landlocked and without the principal Southeast Asian holiday lure of white sand beach resorts, Laos is certainly a less-than-typical resort tourist destination. All the better for eco-conscious and nature oriented travelers, I say.

Though not dwarfed by its neighbors in terms of physical size, all nations with which Laos shares its borders are far more densely populated than this slow-paced country of 6.5 million.

pic: McKay Savage (Flickr CC)

Covered in forestland and mountainous terrain, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), as it is officially known, is home to many of what are termed Bio-Diversity Conservation Areas. An estimated 50% of the country’s woodland is primary forest, especially rainforest. Though it is still one of the poorest nations in the region, Laos is developing its National Ecotourism Strategy and Action Plan in order to foster tourism while protecting its biodiversity and unique culture.

More can be read about the government’s vision for ecotourism here.

Before development hits, now is probably the time to take advantage of a true nature holiday in Laos. I don’t know if Laos is destined to be thronged by tourists or remain a primarily backpacker destination (there are apparently more monks than tourists at any given time), but for a laid-back cultural and nature trekking holiday there’s no better time than the present.

In general, Laos is full of opportunities for the serious nature traveler. Besides pristine forests and jungle, the Mekong River winds its way through the entire western portion of the country, affording ample adventure and sights. Not least are the spectacular limestone karsts that dot the northern portion of the river. Other natural wonders of note in Laos include the beautiful Kuangsi Waterfall and nearby fascinating Pak Ou Caves, a group of grottos along the Mekong full of wooden Buddhist figures.

If trekking through mountains and jungle, camping in the forest or participating in adventure sports like mountain biking, climbing, caving, rafting and kayaking are your thing, you might want to check out the northern province of Luang Namtha, “the province of life and nature”.

Kuangsi Waterfall, photo: Lars Olsen (Flickr CC)

Some tour operators offer package holidays like Mekong River Cruises, cultural-themed holidays exploring Lao’s ancient Buddhist temples and palaces or adventure trips incorporating other neighboring countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Animals

A diverse array of fauna can be spotted in Laos, including gibbons, leopards, Javan mongooses, goat-antelopes, Malayan sun and Asiatic black bears, and of course elephants. Irrawaddy Dolphins can be seen swimming through southern parts of the Mekong River near Khong Island in Champassack province. Laos is also home to some 800 species of migratory and resident birds, including the rare Green Peafowl.

Ethical options

Hardcore ethical travelers who want to “give something back” might consider “voluntourism” – benefiting poor ethnic minorities in the far north of the country; or staying in a culture lodge in a traditional ethnic village and taking part in their daily activities. Read more about those options here.

If you’d like a bit of a tranquil urban break visit Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the cleanest and most charming cities in Southeast Asia. Luang Prabang is full of Buddhist temples and traditional wooden houses as well as the occasional French colonial detail. It’s also surrounded by views of green forests and picturesque mountains.

Keep in mind
  • Though Laos is a communist country, it is very traditional as well as ethnically and culturally rich. There are some 49 ethnic groups and the nation is officially Buddhist.
  • Sexual relations between foreigners and Lao nationals are forbidden outside of marriage. One should also respect local customs by dressing modestly in temples (cover your legs).
  • Drink bottled water and bring mosquito repellent to be safe from water-borne illnesses, especially dengue and malaria.
  • Make sure you find out whether you require a visa to enter Laos. ASEAN nationals, Koreans, Russians, Japanese and Swiss do not. It is also possible to get a visa on arrival at an airport or other point of entry, but it’s best to be sure depending on your circumstances.

For a brief lowdown on eco-tourism opportunities in the different regions of Laos check out this website.

Luang Prabang, photo: brongaeh (Flickr CC)