Archive for June 1st, 2011

June 1, 2011

Stay Another Day: The Green Revolution in Laos

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By Mark Johanson | May 29, 2011 6:20 PM EDT

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.

June 1, 2011

The World’s Top Rated Destination that Nobody’s Going To

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By Mark Johanson | May 12, 2011 11:54 AM EDT

Wat Xiengthong temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Wat Xiengthong temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Sure, it was New York Times number one destination in the world for 2008.  Sure, it’s the Wanderlust Travel Awards winner for Top City in 2010 and 2011.  But, nobody seems to be listening – and that’s a good thing.  Somehow, despite all the accolades and gushing reviews, Luang Prabang, Laos remains a quiet town on the verge of superstardom.

Once an extremely private nation, Laos swung open its doors to travelers in 1989 and is fast becoming a tourists’ favorite on the Southeast Asian circuit.  The former royal capital of the ancient kingdom of Lane Xang (the Land of a Million Elephants), Luang Prabang has long been a backpacker favorite and is transforming into a world-class destination.  The small city isn’t about bright lights and flashy hotels.  It’s a place for 5-star relaxation at a boutique hotel, riverside culinary indulgence, and Buddhist serenity.

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.

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 trains at the city’s dazzling temples, spilling out onto the streets at daybreak to gather 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.

Last year marked the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabang’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage City.  Its fusion of traditional Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries make for a unique blend of two distinct cultural traditions.

Beyond the city limits, 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 21st century.  Within reach of the mountainous north, there are several opportunities in Luang Prabang to learn about the diverse ethnic tribes and to give back through volunteering.

With improved roads and transportation services, Luang Prabang is no longer the isolated oasis it used to be.  That’s not to say that the roads are peaceful (cavernous potholes, wild turns, open cliff sides), but they’re there – mostly.  You can arrange a slow boat from Chiang Mai, Thailand, but the easiest way to get to Luang Prabang is to fly.  The recently modernized airport is just 4 kilometers from the center of town.  There are daily flights from Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines and several carriers make the hop over from Bangkok throughout the week.

Someday soon, the secret is going to get out.  How many more awards can this romantic city win before people take notice?

June 1, 2011

NGOs refuse Nestle development finance – Concerns about Nestle’s marketing in Laos

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Last Updated: 22 hours 35 minutes ago

”]Humanitarian organisations in Laos say they are concerned about unethical marketing practices by food giant Nestle, especially in concern to breast milk substitutes.

More than 20 organisations have written to the company saying they will not be applying for a development prize worth $US500,000.

Chris Mastaglio from ChildFund Laos has told Radio Australia’s Connect Asia program the company needs to be more responsible.

“Nestle needs to look at some of their materials, just to make sure that they are also encouraging breast feeding across all of the populations in Laos,” he said.

“Sometimes for example, breast milk substitutes are available not in native languages and there can be a misunderstanding, there can be confusion and so it’s just really ensuring there is consistency across everbody engaging with these very important issues.”

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NGOs refuse Nestle development finance

Updated June 1, 2011 14:40:40

More than 20 humanitarian organisations have sent a letter to the food giant Nestle… saying they won’t be applying for a lucrative development prize sponsored by the company because of unethical marketing practises.

The letter was sent last week and says that “Babies and children are dying in Laos because food companies such as Nestles are weakening national regulatory frameworks and aggressively flooding the market with information that dilutes public health campaigns that promote breastfeeding”. Among the aid groups to sign on the boycott are World Vision, Save the Children, Oxfam and ChildFund Laos.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Chris Mastaglio, country manager for ChildFund Laos

MASTAGLIO: I think what we’d like to see is consistency across all of the sectors, I mean private sector including NGOs to ensure that children have got the chance of healthy growth. And we are an advocate for breastfeeding across all populations and I think Nestle needs to look at some of the materials just to make sure that they are also encouraging breastfeeding across all of the populations in Laos. Their engagement in schools, their engagement in communities, sometimes for example breast milk substitutes are available not in native languages, and there can be misunderstanding, there can be confusion, and so it’s just really ensuring that there’s consistency across everybody engaging with these really important issues and ensuring that children have got the opportunity to have a healthy upbringing.

COCHRANE: I understand though that company representatives are also going into hospitals and offering incentives for doctors and nurses to either allow or to promote their products as an alternative to breastfeeding. Is that a key part of the problem?

MASTAGLIO: There are instances of this happening and we would just, as NGOs we’re encouraging Nestle to be more open about this and to engage with NGOs to ensure that the international standards are being met, and in some cases we believe that this is not the case.

COCHRANE: Has there been any response to your letter from the company?

MASTAGLIO: At the moment there hasn’t been, but there will be further follow-up in country. I believe the letter was sent very recently and we haven’t had a response from the Nestle headquarters yet.

COCHRANE: Now look one of the other major problems in Laos and a recurring problem, is that of unexploded ordinance, bombs and bullets from past conflicts that continue to pose a threat to civilians. Now I understand you were just about to get involved in opening a local school. Can you tell us the situation there and the clearance activities that have gone on?

MASTAGLIO: So that’s right, we’re working up in Nong Het, which is in Xiangkhouang province in the north of the country. As I’m sure many people are aware there was around one ton of munitions dropped for every person in Laos up to 1975. Nong Het the district we work in is the second most contaminated district in the country, and the UXO issue here is quite phenomenal, I think it’s something that’s under many people’s radars. A school we opened yesterday in Paka village to clear the land to prepare for that school we had to take away 189 pieces of ordinance, and that was a huge undertaking to clear the soil, it was a very slow, painstaking process and we partnered with the UXO clearance organisation to do that. But this contamination is across the district and it affects so many things, construction, it’s affecting livelihoods, it’s affecting access to productive land, and without these issues being addressed I think it’s very difficult to address poverty in districts such as Nong Het.

COCHRANE: And tell us about the facility that you’re opening now, what will that be used for?

MASTAGLIO: So we’re working with the Ministry of Education here in Laos, and the facility that we’re opening will be a five classroom school, so it will cover kids from preschool up to grade 5. At the moment the village only has access to grade 1 and 2 education in a building that was built nearly 15 years ago, and it’s on its last legs. Kids who want to study to grade 3 and further have to walk an hour to school at the moment, so the construction of this facility is obviously giving kids education services in their village, and saving a two-hour walk every day.

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