There's 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/fair trade 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.
Sustainable tourism is an incredible boon for a country like Laos as it has little in the way of industry. Yet, how the idea took root in this country is a miracle. The concept remains foreign in tourist-heavy Thailand whose Western music, entertainment and culture continues to float over the Mekong, much to the Lao government's dismay.
In Laos, sustainable tourism takes on many faces.
The folks at Green Discovery lay their 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 today, they are committed to ensuring that the 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 your 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 a farm. They supply accommodation not only for helpers in the field, but volunteer English teachers in the local schools. Profits from the farm provide training, employment, support and education for 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.
Über 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. The stores were founded separately 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 Export Promotion Center as well as the popular Hive Bar (home of the Ethnik Fashion Show). Kopnoi's second floor gallery is the location of the Stay Another Day Multimedia Exhibition, full of history, ethnography and ideas on responsible travel. The fair trade 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 hippie, 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 20 ethnicities represented by 20 models in almost 100 costumes, this is no small-scale production.
The fashion show takes place on Hive's moody, red-lit backyard stage. As the 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 history teacher taught lessons like this, the after show of locals breakdancing brings a jolting change from the historic to the global
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 the 4,000 islands in the south. Many organizations have offices in Vientiane and Paske, though Luang Prabang remains the heart and soul of the movement.
Much of the money generated by the organizations mentioned in this article 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 by 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 while ensuring that 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 Laos.
To read more about Luang Prabang, Laos click here.
If you would like to get involved or find out how you can give back, here are the websites for the organizations mentioned in this article.
Hive Bar (Ethnik Fashion Show)